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On Fire, But We Can't Feel A Thing

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It starts in a daze.

Sirius is in his apartment and it’s nearly three in the morning, and he might be a little bit drunk – he can’t remember now, and he doesn’t want to. His knuckles are split, bleeding from the blinded punches he’s been throwing at walls. The bedroom he’s in is half-shrouded in darkness; the other half dimly bathed in dirty, musty yellow light from a lamp. It’s raining outside, and it feels like he’s been lying here for hours, nursing some imaginary wound in his chest where a knife has torn through the skin.

It’s pathetic. He knows that. He knows that better than anyone because it’s been too long and time is supposed to fucking heal, isn’t it? But it hasn’t. Not now, not yet.

And all the bloody nightmares considered, Sirius wants to think he had been doing fine. Or as fine as he could be, as fine as he has managed to be over the past eighteen months. Occasionally smiling, occasionally getting it right. Being okay hasn’t been easy for him recently but he tries, he really does.

So when Remus’ head pops into his fireplace for the first time in a year without warning, Sirius is more than a little bit shocked.

It starts with a violent, crackling hiss, the dying red embers that were in the fireplace suddenly flourishing into bright, emerald green flames. By the time Sirius has recovered from this unexpected occurrence, Remus’ grave, solemn face has appeared in his hearth.

He starts talking immediately, not wasting time to say things like hello or how are you or I’m sorry for not calling in for a whole year. 

What he does deliver, though, are heavy words doused in a kind of swollen, barely contained panic, words that sting and settle inside Sirius’ lungs uncomfortably like poison. Sirius listens, still too stunned to respond, to the first three words at least. And then his mind goes numb, all the open-ended questions he’d been meaning to ask flattening out pitifully against his throat.

“He’s been hurt.” 

Remus’ voice sounds like the squeal of shattered glass – high-pitched and embedding deep into Sirius’ brain, skittering into every corner and amplifying the whispers that he’s managed to ignore for a long time. Three words, with barely any context, but Sirius feels something clawing dark and hungry inside his stomach almost immediately when he hears them.

He’s been hurt.

He’s been hurt.

James has been hurt.

Sirius wants to keep listening, wants to find out more, but the first three words are enough, something loud has started ringing in his ears and Remus’ voice sounds too far away. He doesn’t speak, just swallows thickly and feels it wash down his mouth, leaving a bitter aftertaste behind.

What happened? Where is he? How bad is it?

The questions are all there, flashing like neon red warning signs around his head, but they crumple and die down before he has the chance to ask them out loud. Part of him doesn’t even want to know. Part of him already understands that this is bad, very bad, if Remus is calling, because – Merlin, how long has it been? A whole fucking year since they’ve spoken, though it feels like much more now.

He knows that somewhere inside his frozen chest, his heart is crying like a wounded animal, thudding against his ribs erratically. Remus is still talking, but Sirius doesn’t hear him and all his stupid brain can think is, he’s been hurt, he’s been hurt, he’s been hurt; one repeated, muffled litany blaring over and over in his head.

He can hear those words piling around the room, sees them bumping against the dusty, unkempt furniture and the empty bottle of Muggle pills that he’d swallowed when he first found himself alone. All of a sudden Remus’ voice disappears completely and Sirius is remembering a single pair of eyes, bright and brown as soft earth; eyes that burned for him in the middle of the night, when they’d both been high and so fucking in love that it hurt to breathe.

And now –

He’s hurt. Hurt, hurt, hurt. James has been hurt.

Remus’ voice finally comes back into focus, jumping out of the fireplace in a tumble of unfinished phrases with bits and pieces of information that go down into Sirius with visceral pangs and leave marks in his memory like scars; St Mungos’, he says, fourth floor, but come quick – he’s been hurt. 

Rain splatters against the closed windowpane, mercilessly cold with a thrumming that pounds loudly inside his head. Sirius watches numbly as the emerald flames die away and Remus’ head disappears, wonders vaguely if he’s dreamed the whole thing. He stares down at the dark wooden table he’s sitting on (marred with violent claw marks from when he’d dissolved into fits of rage), and tries briefly to remember how well he’d been doing, running in circles and falling into this stupid routine, going nowhere. It takes a moment or two to come to terms with what has just happened. 

James.                                                          

The name feels like a sudden punch to the throat, an unforgiving fist closed tight with black regret and untold apologies.

Sirius’ head is already spinning and his eyes are wet with the tears that he’s trying to ignore, knuckles still aching painfully. The myriad of memories flashing in his head are too quick and too desperate, one after the other after the other, and suddenly Sirius is thinking about being seventeen and loving so hard that it made him sick; and the number of emergency rooms it took for him to stop the pain; and how it still, still hurts, after all this bloody time, like an open wound that’s been left to fester in his chest. 

Despite the room being dim and quiet, everything here feels too bright, too blurred, too heavy and fast and loud. Sirius’ head is throbbing again and as hard as he’s trying to think past it – there’s only one thing for him to do now and he knows that. There’s no question of it, no arguing with himself that this isn’t necessary, that he doesn’t have to do it. The hospital is fifteen minutes away (twenty because the tequila is burning inside him now, no longer pleasant or relieving), and Remus said to come quick, because –

James has been hurt.

It only takes a minute to make up his mind. In a series of sudden, harsh movements he finds himself standing in front of the door, pulling a cloak on and stepping out into the biting cold with only one thing on his mind.

--

The scent of disinfectants assaults his nose almost immediately as he enters the hospital, sharp and sickening. Sirius has been here before, and the onslaught of half-faded memories dimmed behind the old bottle of pills seems to be shaking up inside his chest again, but he holds them down firmly. This isn’t about the time he found himself waking up in the hospital, again and again and again for a year. This is about James.

(Well, it’s always been about James, he thinks, but not like this.)

When he steps into the waiting room, he sees – he sees Remus there, Remus Lupin, whom he hasn’t seen in more than a year. Remus, in his brown jumper that he’d worn two Christmases ago, except that now it’s frayed at the edges and Remus isn’t smiling like Sirius remembers he did.

It take a few moments to respond, but then Remus immediately comes forward to close his arms around Sirius’ body, and all the words he’s planned to say go out like an extinguished flame inside him.

“Oh my God, look at you,” Remus is murmuring, and his voice sounds choked, but it’s warm, soft against the edge of Sirius’ ear. “Merlin, look at you, Padfoot. You’re so different now; you’ve grown so much taller, and your hair – ” 

It’s hard to speak, and suddenly Sirius is trying not to cry again, trying to breathe through his nose without throwing up from the wild upsurge of memories; how, during the best years of his life, he’d had everything he wanted and the next second it had all gone to shit.

“It’s okay,” Remus says, his arms tightening a tiny bit, and for a quiet moment Sirius feels like they’re underwater, the chaos and havoc of everything else going still for the shortest while. “I missed you.”

And then Remus lets go and Sirius has to wipe at his eyes, struggling to swallow everything down. “How is he?”

Remus’ eyes are soft, red-rimmed and shadowed slightly with the lack of sleep. He pushes the hair off his forehead, pale skin flushed underneath. “He’s inside. Woke up a while before you came. He’s had – all sorts of procedures done to him, but the Healers think he’ll live.”

“How bad was it?”

“Punctured lung and broken all his ribs, the Healers have given him some potions for the pain,” Remus’ voice sounds too mild for the heavy words it’s carrying. “He’s – it was an attack, Pads, they came for him and Lily and –“

Sirius feels the air inside his chest growing icy cold. “What happened?”

“We don’t know,” Remus shuts his eyes, and that’s when it hits Sirius that there’s something he isn’t telling him. “It was bad, the Muggle witnesses made it sound like they were being tortured on the streets, and –“ 

“Death Eaters?” Sirius whispers, and Remus nods with a pained expression on his face. “But they’ll – they’ll be alright, won’t they? The Healers –“

“They’re doing everything they can,” Remus says. “But you didn’t see him when they’d brought him in – I don’t even know how long he’d been under the Cruciatus Curse for. We think he’s going to make it, though, they were at it for hours, running up and down the hospital to get potions and antidotes and treatments for him.”

“Remus,” Sirius’ voice is numb, the words crawling out into the light like they’re afraid to be heard as a sudden, horrible realization hits him. “Remus, why did you call me? He said – you know what he said –“ 

“He said that he never wanted to see you again,” Remus sounds quiet, but in his head Sirius hears echoes of James shouting again from that one night; angry words that were electric red, spat out in an eruption of rage. “I know.” 

“So why?”

Remus lets out a breath, and Sirius doesn’t remember ever seeing him look so sad, so tired. “You loved him, Sirius. You loved him and everyone in the world knew it.” 

Sirius’ fingernails are digging into his own palm, the sharp pain distracting him momentarily from the sudden nausea that’s swept up his throat. 

“And – and I know a lot of things have changed since then. I know this is a stupid, ridiculously long shot, but I need to know, Pads, for his sake and for yours – do you love him? Still?”

The question seems to slam into him like a train, flattening out his bones and leaving crushed rubble in its place. Broken, he thinks for a short second, everything’s broken. “I don’t know,” he says placidly. “Why does it matter?”

“Because,” Remus pauses to breathe out. “Because he needs you right now. He needs someone to love him the way you did.”

“He said he never wanted to see me again, Remus.”

“But –“

“A year and a half,” Sirius interrupts, words jumping out savagely. “I tried everything, Moony, I’ve been fucking ripping myself apart for all these months and he’s never even fucking called – he needs me? Where was he when I needed him? Not one owl, not one visit! But, no, of course not, he couldn’t bring himself to give one fuck about his best friend because he had Lily, and –" 

“Sirius,” Remus’ face is pale, ghostly under the fluorescent light. “Lily’s gone.”

The rest of the seething sentences that Sirius is on the verge of shouting stop suddenly in his throat, confused. “What? Gone where?”

Remus is looking at him with a strange, broken expression. “The Death Eaters, they – they killed her, Sirius. She’s dead.”

The words take a painful few seconds to sink in, entering his head like a cauldron leak. Sirius feels them dissolve slowly in through his brain. 

“Dead?” he repeats quietly, unnerved by how faraway the concept feels to him. He feels like he’s been plunged into a lake of icy water – suddenly everything seems to have been slowed down and blurred out into a distant, faded haze. But Lily can’t be dead, he thinks, Lily was so clever and brave and – Sirius has never allowed himself to adore her, because she was always the dark space between him and James; she was the reason that he lost his best friend, but – dead? She can’t be dead, she’d sent Sirius owls with long, concerned letters behind James’ back to make sure he was okay, she’d given him flowers at the hospital, even came to visit him in the dead of night while James was asleep and apologized for him. It’s with a hollow pang that Sirius suddenly wishes he hadn’t shouted at her that night, hadn’t told her to leave him the fuck alone, to go back to her precious James and - 

“Sirius?” Remus says softly, gazing at him with a combination of pain and weariness. “D’you see now, why I called? James needs you. He has nobody else anymore.”

“He won’t want to see me,” Sirius closes his eyes and swallows. There’s a thick, painful mound in his throat as memories of his last, horrible encounter with James flare up again. “He hasn’t wanted to see me for a long time now, Moony.”

“That’s not true,” Remus’ eyes are soft and sad as starlight. “You know it isn’t.” 

“Yeah?” Sirius feels like he’s breathing a lot faster, but the air inside his lungs is heavy and choked up with a kind of angry, snarling pain that he doesn’t want to think about. “He’s done a good job convincing me otherwise, hasn’t he? So what if he has no one else now? I had nothing when he left me, and he didn’t care that I was alone!”

Remus tugs on the sleeves of his brown jumper. He’s flickering like candlelight, like he’s in a sketch, all soft around the edges and shaded in with shadows. After a long, deadened silence he says, “You were only alone because you shut everyone else out, Padfoot.” 

Shut everyone out?” Sirius shouts back suddenly, his voice catching fire. “I was trying to kill myself every chance I got, Remus, I was fucking tearing myself apart, and –“ 

“And you were so caught up in your own pain that you made it impossible for any of us to reach out to you,” Remus looks down sadly, blinking. “Nobody blames you, Pads, we all knew about – about the way you felt about him, we knew how losing him must’ve have destroyed you. But you can’t for one moment say that we didn’t try to be there for you. You just wouldn’t let us in.”

A prick of guilt fills Sirius’ stomach, spreading dark and grey like cigarette smoke. Remus isn’t wrong. Sirius vaguely remembers throwing blind curses on anyone who tried to show up at his apartment after that night, remembers smashing every gift they brought him in the hospital, remembers even punching Remus on his stupid concerned face one evening when he refused to leave. 

“You don’t know,” he turns to Remus, biting his words out through gritted teeth, “how long it took for me to move past that, how many times I tried to end it – who’s to say the second I go into that ward he isn’t going to look at me and tell me to get out? Who’s to say how fucking long that will take to get over –“

“He won’t,” Remus says, and there’s something miserable and empty in the way he says it. “I know he won’t.”

“And how would you know that?”

“Sirius, after the Death Eaters – after they killed Lily,” Remus is grimacing, face looking more drawn and sallow. “They tried to erase their faces from James’ memory so he wouldn’t go hunting them down – but something went wrong, they didn’t do it properly, maybe they were in a hurry to leave so they wouldn’t get caught, and –“

“And what?” Sirius is staring at him, ignoring the fact that he feels like he can’t breathe, like all the air in the room has vanished and there’s nothing but a horrible, dull ache in his chest.

Remus hesitates, then says, “he can’t remember anything, Pads. Nothing about Hogwarts, nothing about Lily, nothing about us.”

The entire room crumbles away, until it’s just Sirius and Remus standing in the middle of a black abyss, looking at each other under a single tile of fluorescent light. Sirius’ heart is beating wildly against his throat, threatening to crawl out on all fours and run as far away as it possibly can from here.

“What,” he’s saying, not knowing how exactly his own lips are moving, “what – is he – how can he not –“

“He’s still James,” Remus’ eyelids flicker shut, like curtains, for a brief moment. “Still talks and acts like himself, but I went into that ward and he didn’t even know who I was.”

Sirius feels oddly faint, feels like his whole body has turned into vapour and he could just be blown away into nothingness at any moment. Nothing about this has felt real, not when Remus’ head popped into his fireplace and not now that he’s telling him that James, his James, won’t remember who he is. 

“This is why he needs us,” Remus whispers, the words coming out as a soft rush of air. “We can’t leave him like that, Pads. You wouldn’t leave him like that, not after everything.” 

“Remus, I –“

“You loved him, didn’t you?” Remus says, very quietly. “You still do?”

Sirius wants to break something and scream and tear himself to shreds, and even if takes every remaining morsel of strength in his body to admit it, even if he’s spent the last eighteen months force-feeding the opposite to himself, choking down on the lies every fucking day until he could look into the mirror and spit it out without crying – he knows, inside the deepest gallows of his heart, that he’s in love with James in a way that no amount of time spent trying to scrub it out will change.

“Okay,” Sirius says finally, trying to sound calm, but his voice is trembling like shutter blinds caught in a hurricane. “Okay. I want to see him.” 

Remus gives him a small, grateful smile, and then starts hurrying towards one of the wards, gesturing for Sirius to follow. It only takes a few short steps to get there, but Sirius is so anxious that the walk seems to last forever. A million and one words are threatening to spill out of him, things like what will he say when he sees me and I wonder what he looks like now and this is not real this is not real this can’t be real.

It’s almost too soon when Remus is pushing the door open and Sirius hears the click of the handle, and he almost wants to stop and throw up because he’s not fucking ready for this but Remus goes in and Sirius follows him and then they’re inside the ward and –

And the boy sitting on the bed is the most beautiful thing that Sirius has seen in a year and a half, with his glasses and his untameable black hair and the wide, brown eyes that Sirius has dreamed about every night.

And then everything from the past eighteen months suddenly come crashing back down onto him, the numbness of shock evaporating rapidly to give way to a fresh outbreak of raw pain that spreads in waves around his whole body. Every broken bottle, every time he screamed himself hoarse trying to get James to listen to him, every desperate measure that left him feeling like he’d lost his mind, every sleepless night and the horrible, dark sadness that infected everything he touched, growing to fester and smother and suffocate him until he couldn’t breathe anymore. And he’s ready to shout now, ready to grab James and shake him and yell how fucking dare you, how could you do that to me, I was your best friend in the whole world and I loved you more than I could even understand –

But then the boy is smiling at him with soft warmth and inviting lightness, crinkles around his beautiful eyes, and all horror and the pain vapourizes almost instantly, leaving the air in Sirius’ lungs feeling fresh and new.

“Hi,” the boy says brightly, using one hand to push back the dark hair that’s falling onto his face and holding the other one out towards Sirius happily. “I’m James. Have we met?”

-- 

Chapter Text

There’s a long, drawn-out silence that follows. Sirius feels like his entire body has been vulcanized, feels like he can barely move or talk or breathe while he’s here standing in the same room as James Potter.

The first thing he notices is that James looks older, looks different. There are traces of him in his appearance that Sirius does not recognize; the slight day-old shadows of stubble, the way the underlying bone structure on his face appears a bit more pronounced now, even his hair seems to have grown messier. The second thing he notices is that James is still as fucking gorgeous as he always has been; so much so that it almost hurts to look directly at him.

James raises his eyebrows, then turns to give Remus an uncertain look. “Not very talkative, is he?”

Sirius opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. He still can’t believe it, can’t believe he’s here in front of James, can’t believe James is smiling at him. Sirius has long since stopped hoping that James would ever look at him like that again, without the molten anger afire inside his eyes – much less try to start an actual civil conversation that doesn’t involve them snarling and attacking at each other like a pair of rabid animals.

James’ gaze is back on Sirius again, and it feels white-hot against his skin. “You know, this whole memory-loss thing would be so much easier to deal with if there was only one person at a time looking so fucking confused in this room. And I, being the one who can’t actually remember anything, believe I’m quite deserving of that privilege.”

Remus laughs beside him. Sirius knows he must be coming across as a complete idiot by uselessly standing there and staring, but he really doesn’t feel capable of much else right now. Fuck. He can barely drag his attention away from just the way James looks, a bit disheveled but otherwise faultless, long enough to form any coherent thoughts on his own.

“Come on now, you must have a name,” James says, sounding a bit irritated, and Sirius almost wants to laugh – James, who he was so close to and knew so thoroughly, with whom Sirius had once been so contiguous to the point where he never even knew where he ended and James began, is asking for his name.

It’s this unusual, startling realization that somehow galvanizes him into speech. “I’m Sirius. Hi.”

He wants to say you should know that, you should know me anywhere, but the words remain sitting stubbornly on his tongue and don’t come out.

“Oh,” James appears to think for a second, then he smiles. “Sirius. I like that.”

Sirius’ whole head is filled with mist. It sounds so strange hearing James say his name again. Somehow, whenever he hears the it coated in James’ voice, he forgets how much he hates it, makes him think it isn’t really as stupid as he always claims. “It’s not bad, is it?” he says, feeling the warmth kindle his face. “Better than fucking Remus.”

James laughs. It’s a short laugh, but the sound seems to fill Sirius’ whole chest and push outwards against his ribs, glowing like warm light.

“Fuck, Prongs,” the words slip out of him quietly, without him even thinking, “I’ve missed you so much.”

The smile on James’ face fades suddenly. And then he’s looking away toward the window, evidently embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I don’t –“

Remus chooses that precise moment to clear his throat, giving Sirius a warning look, before walking towards James and putting a gentle hand on the slope of his shoulder. “You don’t need to apologize for anything, James. It isn’t your fault.”

“I know,” James says, but it sounds numb.

Unease prickles sharply on the back of Sirius’ neck. It suddenly just hits him, how unnatural it is that James doesn’t seem to know anything. It doesn’t feel right that the past eight years have just vanished like that, dissolved into oblivion. He admits that the last two in particular may have been a disaster, but – before that, before James changed his mind, it had all been so good between them, so untouchable and raw and good.

James is staring out through the enchanted windows, at the dark moonless sky punctured open with a few distant stars. For a second he looks much smaller, much younger, and so vulnerable that something behind Sirius’ ribcage aches.

And then he says, quite sullenly, “I’m tired.”

“Of course,” Remus steps back at once. “You need sleep, don’t you, you’ve still got so much healing to do. We should just – we should leave you to it. Would you like us to come back and see you tomorrow?”

James shrugs dismally, still looking out the window.

“James,” Remus says, watching him. “We’re here for you, you know, no matter what. I know it must be incredibly frustrating to be in this position, but – you need to know that we would do anything for you, James, anything that you ask at all. Okay?”

“Yeah,” James finally turns away from the window to look at the pair of them. His eyes linger for a moment on Sirius’, a brief lock of brown against grey, earth diffusing into smoke. “I know. Thank you.”

Remus tugs on Sirius’ arm lightly, pulling his attention momentarily off James. “Come, he needs to rest. We’ll see him tomorrow.”

“I want to stay,” Sirius says immediately. The words are out before he can think to stop them. “I need to.”

Padfoot –“

“No. I want to stay.”

Remus gives him an exasperated look, then lowers his voice so that James can’t hear. “Don’t you see? He wants to be alone. Us staying here is just going to overwhelm him, Sirius, we need to give him time to come to grips with all of this on his own.”

“But it’s been –“

“I know it’s been a long time since you’ve seen him,” Remus grimaces, like it hurts to speak. “But think about James. You can see him first thing in the morning if you want, just leave him be tonight. He needs time, Padfoot.”

Sirius looks back at James, who’s still observing them quietly. And then he decides that Remus is probably quite right as usual, so he bites his lip and gives James an awkward half-wave that feels a bit too forced and artificial.

“Uh – goodnight, then. I’ll – I’ll come and see you tomorrow, yeah?”

James nods without replying. And that’s strange, Sirius thinks, the silence casually filling the room like some type of flood – like there are no longer any words to be exchanged between then, like there never were.

He becomes aware of Remus tugging on his arm again. With a final look at James (now staring out the window again), the two of them quietly walk out of the ward, closing the door behind them as they leave. He doesn’t miss the way the air feels a lot easier to breathe the second they’re out of the room. Merlin, it feels like they’ve stepped into a different fucking universe altogether.

They begin meandering through the different passages of the hospital, and it’s not until they’re both standing outside in the icy, sharp night and Sirius is lighting himself a smoke that Remus finally speaks again.

“Well, what do you think?”

Sirius shrugs and puffs moodily on the cigarette. “I don’t think I deserve it.”

“Deserve what?”

“Him being nice to me,” Sirius says, disliking how the words taste so jaded as they leave his mouth. “Looking at me like he hasn’t hated me for the past year and a half.”

“But he hasn’t,” Remus says, looking at him. “He – he had to make a choice, Sirius. And just because he didn’t choose you doesn’t mean –“

It’s not that, it’s never just been that, Sirius wants to shout, but the words seem too loud and accusatory to throw out against the still nighttime, so he bites them back down and keeps his mouth shut.

“What I said about him needing time,” Remus says. “I mean it, Sirius. I know – I know how you feel about him, I know it can be intense and, and all sorts of other things. But James doesn’t know any of that, okay? He won’t be able to understand if you just –”

“I know.”

“What I mean to say is – don’t force anything onto him.”

Sirius lets out a harsh, loud laugh that vibrates so shrilly in the cold air that it makes Remus wince, but there’s no trace of mirth behind it. “I’m not going to try to make him love me like he did before, Moony, if that’s what you mean. Don’t you think one and a half years of suffering has taught me my fucking lesson?”

Remus watches him for a second, not replying. Then he says, “no,” very quietly, and it doesn’t even sound like he’s mocking him. “No, Sirius, I just don’t think it has.”

-

That night in his apartment Sirius makes himself a bitter cup of tea and swallows the scalding liquid in a few burning gulps before crawling into bed. He listens to the rustle of leaves outside his window for a few moments, and then drifts off into a hazy, restless sleep.

He dreams that he’s running. Cold winds whipping like razor-sharp blades in his face, paws soundlessly bounding against the black earth of the Forest. Silent pairs of yellow, moonlike eyes blink at him from behind the leaves as he passes. He runs and runs and runs, a dark four-legged shape hurtling like a shadow against the night, until he finds himself at the edge of the Forest, where the trees have thinned out to reveal a sparse, empty patch of land. An owl hoots mournfully and takes flight when he steps into the clearing.

Padfoot!” a voice calls out; and it sounds too familiar, too haunting. “I’m over here!”

Sirius looks around, canine ears pricking sharp, looking for the source of the voice.

“I’m here, can’t you see me?” it shouts again.

He lets out a low, feral growl. When it speaks again he snarls at the empty air around him.

“I’m always going to be here,” the voice is saying, quieter now, “nothing will change that.”

And then the darkness of the Forest falls away, and Sirius is standing, with his teeth still bared, in his black suit at James’ engagement party, holding an elegant glass of champagne in his hand. James stands across him, handsome but placating.

“Are you even listening to me?” he asks, exasperated voice ringing out against the buzz of chatter from guests in the brightly-lit room. “I said I’m always going to be here. This doesn’t change anything between us, Padfoot. I promise, okay?”

Sirius’ eyes land on the smooth, shining stone set in the ring on James’ fourth finger. It catches the light from all directions, glinting.

Say something,” James sounds like he’s pleading now, and his hand reaches out, fingers closing around Sirius’ wrist.

The touch feels searing hot, branding against his skin, and Sirius yanks away immediately. The glass of champagne that he’s holding slips from his grip and smashes onto the floor. The golden liquid is splattering everywhere, and then it’s turning into dark blood as it stains the walls.

And when Sirius looks back up, James is bleeding too; bleeding from his nose and his eyes and his mouth; the hot, sticky redness gushing out like a tsunami as he tries to speak. His hands fly to his own throat, gripping hard, struggling to breathe. Sirius can only stand and watch, horrified, as James crumples to the ground in front of him. The room suddenly fills with piercing, echoing screams as the guests realize what’s happening, and then Lily is shouting at him, throwing vases like knives, tears pouring down her face.

“How could you let him wear it?” she screams, sobbing violently. “You knew it was cursed! How could you do that to him?”

Sirius watches, speechless, as Lily sinks to the ground beside James’ body and holds up his cold, dead hand. The silver ring there shines under the light, untouched by the puddle of blood he’s laying in. She wrenches it off his finger and flings it at Sirius. “You let him wear it! You let him wear the ring, you knew it would kill him!” she’s shrieking, weeping into James’ shoulder. “You killed him!”

The ring lands at his feet, glimmering, but before he can bend down to pick it up – Lily is screaming again; a single-noted, long, high-pitched sound that shatters every window, so loud that the other guests in the room collapse one by one with their hands over their ears. She doesn’t stop screaming until all the walls of the house dissolve away and Sirius hears the terrifying sound ringing inside every particle of his body; until he’s down onto his knees, crying, begging for her to stop.

-

He awakens, panting, a little bit before dawn.

There’s white frost crawling up against his window, concentrated in the middle and then thinning out across the glass as it extends. Sirius allows himself a brief moment to gaze at it while he remains in bed, thinking that it feels like there’s frost just like that inside him; thick and cold in the centre of his chest, spreading out into little tendrils through his veins. And then he snorts and swallows a rough laugh, thinking it might be some type of fucking sign, some message from the cosmos, if he were to believe in such thing.

But he doesn’t. That’s the problem. Sirius hasn’t believed in anything for a long time.

He puts together a hasty breakfast of burnt toast and tea for himself, then makes a lazy attempt at some household spells to make the bed and clear his plates. When that’s done he goes back into his room to find his robes. He pulls them on, then crams the pockets full of the Pumpkin Pasties that he’d bought last night. For some reason his mind doesn’t appear to bother registering half the things he’s doing until he’s actually done them, resulting in mechanical movements that don’t make much sense – like a puppet that’s being jerked along on a very long string, not really sure who’s pulling anymore. Well, most of the time Sirius isn’t really sure anyone even is.

By the time he’s standing outside ready to leave his flat, the early winter sky is smudged with long cloudy streams, the barely-there light sloping sideways onto the road and remnants of last night’s papery snow scattered in small piles everywhere. He hurries onto the street and it’s a bit too late to wish he’d thought of wearing something warmer before there’s a faint pop and he’s Apparating.

The world around him disappears, blurring like rippled water against glass, and Sirius’ chest tightens for a few seconds before he lands smoothly outside of St Mungo’s. The orange flares of sunrise soak into the sky above him, dripping everywhere in fat, blotchy droplets.

For a moment it seems a bit eager to him, showing up here at the crack of dawn. But Remus had said he could come see James first thing in the morning – it seems bizarre, really, to be doing anything else.

He makes his way inside smoothly, careful not to collide into a witch teetering all around the waiting room (a bit off-balance, perhaps, due to her grotesquely enlarged head), and finds James’ ward without much trouble. Once he’s standing outside, Sirius takes a deep breath and wills himself to push the door open when he exhales.

James is already awake inside, lying back against a few pillows and lazily flicking his wand around. The twirling movements cause a few fresh flowers on his bedside table to quiver in their vase. He looks up when Sirius enters, and his face immediately brightens enough to suggest that he’s recovered from his bout of sullenness last night.

“Hello,” he says, sitting up a bit straighter and smiling at him. “You’re here very early.”

“Yeah, I’ve brought you breakfast,” Sirius offers him the Pasties as he takes a seat slowly beside the bed. It’s hard to speak, but somehow he manages to get the words out in what he hopes is a sufficiently natural tone. “These used to be your favourite. Thought you might like to have some.”

“Mmm,” James takes the Pasties and begins stuffing them into his mouth almost instantly, talking ungracefully in between chews. “So good – you wouldn’t believe – the hospital food is shit, they gave me a fucking apple for breakfast –“

Sirius feels a small smile tug stubbornly on the corners of his mouth, and watches intently as James wolfs down the Pasties. He’s aware of how much closer to him he is this morning, with barely half a metre between them. He’s no longer protected by space or distance; it must be damn near impossible that James can’t hear the deafening, frantic drumming of his heart. James’ face is illuminated in the morning light, and as it touches his brown eyes it makes them appear incandescent, almost golden. Sirius suddenly realizes that it's become unbearable to look at James all at once; his messy hair, the sleep-addled, bright eyes; because he’s so fucking beautiful that it shouldn’t make any sense, so beautiful he shouldn’t even be real.

“Where’s Remus?” James asks, on his fourth Pasty in five minutes.

Sirius blinks, shakes his head slightly to clear it. “Um. Probably asleep. He’ll show up later.”

I could barely sleep, so I’ve just been doing all sorts of things to entertain myself in here. I tried some things with the wand – can’t remember any of the impressive spells, of course, but I got some sparks to fly out of it and I can make them come out in different colours too.”

The eager look in his eye just then is so familiar, Sirius realizes, it’s the exact same look James used to give him at Hogwarts when he’d performed a particularly admirable hex or suggested one of his brutally creative pranks. The look that suggests he’s seeking approval from Sirius, because he was the only person that James had ever needed any validation from.

“Oh,” he says. “Uh – wow, well done.”

James grins at that, looking thoroughly pleased with himself. He takes another bite of the Pasty, then throws a disdainful look around at the ward. “There’s nothing to do here, Sirius. When will they let me out?”

Sirius shrugs. Something sharp has punctured a hole in his chest at the sound of his name in James’ mouth. Now that he’s here, so close, it seems beyond stupid to look away for even a second, to waste any moment of time at all not being completely absorbed by James. “You’re recovering, aren’t you? You need to get better first.”

“I feel fine,” James lets out an impatient huff, giving Sirius an annoyed look. “I’ve told all the Healers, they keep coming in here to ask if I want any more bloody potions, like I’m some type of patient –“

“You are, though.”

James crosses his arms over his chest and glares at him. “I feel fine,” he repeats. “Tell them I want to be discharged this afternoon. I’m not spending another day in here. There’s nothing to do.”

Sirius smiles, because for a moment it feels like James hasn’t changed at all. “You’ve only been here for one night. What’s so terrible about it, anyway? Warm bed, three meals, you probably even get someone to give you your baths as well –“

James tosses the half-eaten Pasty at Sirius’ head, and Sirius immediately ducks away by pure muscle memory.

“Where do you think I’d go after they release me?” he asks, reaching for another Pasty. “Do I even have a house?”

“I’d assume so.”

“Where is it? Is it nice?”

“I don’t –“ Sirius pauses, blinking, and then he lets out a breath at the difficult direction the conversation is headed towards. “I don’t know, James. I’ve never been there.”

“Why not?”

“You – you moved to your own place after you got engaged. And, uh. You never told me where.”

James frowns. “How come?”

“We… stopped talking for a while,” Sirius says, with considerable difficulty. “A very long while, actually.”

James’ eyes narrow suspiciously at him.

“Why’d we stop talking?”

For the first time all morning, Sirius rips his gaze off James, choosing instead to direct it toward the ground, so he can pretend to examine his own feet. There’s a prolonged silence that hangs around heavily in the air before he replies.

“It’s a very long and complicated story.”

“Did you hurt me?” James is still surveying him with that sharp, skeptical kind of scrutiny in his eyes. “Tell me what you did.”

“I didn’t hurt you,” Sirius snaps at him, irritation flaring at the accusation. Hurting him, that’s what James had shouted the last time as well, as if Sirius wanting and loving him was somehow an act that caused James pain. “You – you made a big decision and it affected me in an unpleasant way and you weren’t happy with the way I chose to handle it. That’s all.”

“What decision?” James asks at once. The last Pasty now lies abandoned in his lap. “How did you handle it? Why did it affect you so badly?”

Sirius takes a long, cleansing breath and unclenches his fingers. “It’s not – I’m not certain I want to talk about that right now, James.”

“You’re being very dodgy,” James jabs a sudden, accusatory finger towards Sirius, barely an inch away from his shoulder. Sirius feels the potency of how close his finger is, feels a small shiver erupt down his spine at the inescapable thought that James is nearly touching him for the first time in eighteen months. “It’s bad enough not being able to remember anything without you avoiding all my questions as well.”

Sirius’ eyes travels from James’ finger to his face, flooded in the golden light from the window. “I know,” he says, taking in the set jaw and furrowed eyebrows. “I will tell you at some point but – not now, okay. Maybe after you’ve had time to deal with everything else as well.”

“I’m not a fucking child, don’t talk to me like I don’t understand anything –“

“But you won’t understand –“

“Why not?” James demands, glaring at him.

Sirius glares back. The space between them feels thick and viscous.

“I just don’t think it’s possible to explain that to you now, James,” he gets out after a minute, straining to stay composed. “And I don’t want to – cause you any additional stress.”

“Why would it stress me out? I’m supposed to be relearning my entire life, aren’t I?”

“Well, this hasn’t been part of your life for a long time,” Sirius feels a deep flush rising up his neck as he talks, because it’s fucking humiliating. It hasn’t bothered you at all, it hasn’t torn you apart, hasn’t cut you up in all the ways it cut me. I was trapped inside a firestorm for eighteen months, James, and you were just fine.

“I’m going to ask Remus when he gets here,” James decides promptly. “He’ll tell me everything.”

“Don’t you believe me when I say I’ll tell you eventually?”

James scowls at him, arms still crossed. “You’re being a cryptic shit, so no, actually.”

“I would never lie to you, James. You have to know that.”

James purses his lips, surveying him for a few seconds more. And then he uncrosses his arms and finally picks up the last Pumpkin Pasty. “Fine,” he says, taking a bite and swallowing it down. “But only because you brought me these pasties.”

Sirius watches him eat it, still looking grumpy.

“You said I was engaged,” James mentions absently, dusting the crumbs off his fingers.

“You were.”

“To who?”

“Lily Evans,” the name leaves raw, bleeding bite marks around his chest as Sirius says it. “You really liked her. She was – she was incredible. She was everything you wanted.”

“The Healer told me yesterday that the girl I was with – that she was killed,” James is looking intently at him again. “Was it –?”

Sirius exhales slowly. “Yeah.”

James turns his face away. There’s a weighty silence for a long time while he takes in the news.

“I wish I could remember her,” he says finally, voice very quiet. “If I did maybe I’d feel more – more upset, or something – but I can’t. You know? I can’t feel anything at all.”

“I know.”

“It’s wrong, isn’t it?” James says. “I should be angry, what kind of fucked-up fiancé doesn’t feel upset when –“

“James,” Sirius interrupts. “Stop it.”

James closes his mouth and leans back, staring up at the ceiling. There’s a lost, hollow look in his eyes.

“It’s not your fault, none of it is,” Sirius tells him. “There’s no point in beating yourself up over it.”

“Did you know her well?”

Sirius inclines his head. “A bit, yeah.”

Thinking about Lily has turned his entire body cold; frost and snow and black, black ice crawling around his insides. Her face pops into his head, blurred around the edges; smiling at him, so delicately, like Sirius hadn’t spent weeks hating her, convinced that she’d done something to James he had never been able to completely scrub off. Sirius had tried – again and again and again, to fuck the memory of Lily out of James, but it had never achieved anything except create more distance between them.

Dead. She’s dead now. Gone before Sirius had the chance to say sorry for blaming her.

“Um – is it okay if I step outside for a moment, James? I just, I want to smoke. I need some air.”

James shrugs, like he’s only half-listening. Sirius uses the absence of his attention to slip as soundlessly as he can out of the room. There’s an irritating ringing in his ears that makes him want to punch something as he walks out of St Mungo’s and onto the street, but he ignores it.

The people passing by while he lights a cigarette feel strangely faraway, like there’s all this invisible space that’s just grown between him and the rest of the world. They move past, smears of grey wearing coats and hats and gloves, and Sirius can’t help thinking that this is the first time in his entire life that he’s ever wanted to run away from James. He can’t explain it, can’t understand why because all he fucking wanted the past eighteen months was to see James again – and now he’s stuck here, in some sick, terrifying, upside-down reality where James can’t even remember him and Lily Evans is dead.

Fuck, how does anyone even deal with that? It feels like a part of him, something once so familiar and comforting, something he’d understood so well, has been ripped out and Transfigured into something grotesquely different. Feels like there’s a ghost sitting there in that hospital room wearing James’ skin – a stranger. Sirius had known James, every tiny piece of him, had known and memorised and loved him to the point where it became unnecessary to get to know anyone else (save for Remus, and, by some unfortunate default, Peter – but even they were just his best friends, whereas James and him were two inseparable parts of the same whole, they'd always shared one soul, one brain, one everything) – it hardly seems fair that James doesn’t know or understand this at all.

And can it possibly be the same, to know a James who might as well have not been there through everything they had experienced together? Every moment, every adventure, every memory that had defined their relationship, tested and strengthened it, wrecked and destroyed it? It can’t be, because they had grown together, learned and fought through the entire bloody hurricane of adolescence with each other, and then laughed about it later.

He tosses the cigarette butt away. For a moment it seems too easy to just go home, to deal with all of this some other time. But – he’d told Remus he was going to be there for James. Remus was right, Sirius can’t just leave him like that. What’s he supposed to do, though? Tell him everything? Say I know you can’t remember anything so I hope this doesn’t overwhelm you, mate, but we were in love, once? Or – or what? Scrub it off, soak the open wounds burning in his chest with Dittany and pretend that none of it ever happened?

He can’t decide which would be worse; trying to crawl back into the past with James when he can’t remember a thing, or to try and look the other way instead, learning to just live with this new, strange, clueless person that he’s become.

Sirius turns back toward the hospital, and it’s only when he’s standing outside the ward again that it occurs to him that it doesn't really matter what he decides to do - because the truth is, he’s just going to end up very fucking hurt either way, and there's nothing that he even can do about it.

-

Chapter Text

The next week passes by like the fervent eclipse of a dream, with alternating patterns of light spilling onto the shadows underneath. Without any coherent justification, Sirius finds himself constantly returning to the hospital to see James, like some type of addict; opiated just by being in his best friend’s presence again.

He goes back every single day, like a madman walking right into a fucking hurricane, sitting there in that hospital ward and it’s – it’s like he can’t discern between the two polar-opposite emotions he feels about James anymore, can’t tell if he wants to rip something out of his own chest to stop the hurt or continue to bask in the pure glow of existing in the same space as James, the only bloody thing that he’s wanted for the past eighteen months.

Even if it is a chasm flooded with restless, violet-edged fire and turmoil, there’s just something about being around James again that’s too difficult to resist, to deny. Some silvery remnants of their old selves, something so familiar and calming, in the way they talk and laugh and argue together; something that almost, almost tempts Sirius into pretending nothing has changed.

He’s lying in the soft armchair he conjured next to James’ hospital bed, legs swinging over the wooden arm. The moon is a thin pearly crescent sliced into the sky outside the open window, it’s past midnight, and James is half-buried under the sheets, drowsy from his sleep potion.

“I really shouldn’t let you guilt me into staying here with you so late,” Sirius says, exhaling smoke out of the window.

I shouldn’t let you smoke those things inside a hospital,” James’ eyes are heavy-lidded, but the brown heat of them still finds a way to be unfairly distracting.

“They’re not that bad,” Sirius frowns, twirling the cigarette around his fingers, then holds it out toward James. “Here, try it.”

James eyes it warily. “Remus would kill me.”

“Well, Remus isn’t here.”

James shakes his head. “I don’t want one, anyway. Can’t stand the smell.”

Sirius shrugs and slides the cigarette back between his own lips.

There’s a moment or two of quiet, and then James is rolling over onto his side to face Sirius again. “Tell me about me,” he says.

“About you?”

“What was I like?” James’ gaze intently follows the ribboning grey smoke as Sirius blows out, and then returns expectantly to his face. “Both you and Remus know me more than I seem to know myself right now, and it’s just – I don’t really –“

“I’ve told you,” Sirius shifts slightly in the armchair. “We’re your best friends, we have been since you started going to Hogwarts. Well, theoretically there’s Peter, too, but he hasn’t even bothered to visit since –“

“Yeah, he has,” James interrupts.

Sirius raises an eyebrow. “When?”

“Two days ago. Brought me some new clothes and all, said I’d look good in them. He’s a bit odd, but he’s okay, don’t you think? He seems to adore me.”

“Yeah, he’s a bit like that with everyone,” Sirius waves a hand dismissively. “Anyway, we were sort of this group – “

“No, don’t tell me about that, I already know. Tell me about me. What was I like, Sirius?”

Sirius doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to the way his name sounds coming out of James’ mouth. “Uh,” he pauses, tossing the cigarette aside, pulling his knees up to his chest. He doesn’t know what to say. It seems so absurd to have to describe James in words, because James has always been a feeling to him, one for which no vocabulary could ever exist; James has always been like a thunderstorm, a tsunami, a sunrise. “You were a lot like you are now, actually. Just a bit – a bit less confused, maybe. But always curious. Always brave.”

“Remus says you and I were both exactly the same and completely different to each other.”

Sirius snorts. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

James removes his glasses, rubs the bridge of his nose. He looks younger without them, and his eyes are brighter, clearer. It’s a physical effort for Sirius not to comment on it the way he once could, not to tell James how every minute thing he did is somehow beautiful.

“What was your favourite memory with me?”

“All of them,” Sirius says at once, without even thinking.

“No, choose one,” James tilts his head a little to the right, his cheek getting pressed up against the pillow.

“James, there’s too many of them. I can’t choose one.”

“Okay,” James shrugs. “What’s your least favourite memory with me?”

This one is easier, Sirius decides. “The night we stopped talking.”

James’ eyes seem to be burning a bit warmer now, forehead creasing. “Will you ever tell me what happened on that night?”

Something inside Sirius’ chest feels like it’s cracking. How long has it been, how endlessly has he tried to forget that night? Some nights he awakens from dreams still tasting the blood in his mouth.

“Sirius?”

“Mm,” Sirius says, “’course I will,” and he’s not sure how much he means it.

-

“He likes you, you know,” Remus says, a few days later while they’re sitting on the dingy couch sharing a large bottle of brandy. “He talks about you when you’re not there.”

Sirius sets the glass down. It’s been nearly an hour and it still feels strange to see Remus here in his flat again after so long. The way he throws his coat and scarf onto the table, the way he just lounges on the sofa and then asks for a drink like he’s been here the whole damn time, like nothing has changed.

“What does he say about me?”

“What he’s always said, Pads. That you’re clever, you’re funny, you’re his favourite. You always bring him Pasties for breakfast and you talk a lot about Quidditch.”

Something warm rises inside Sirius’ chest like an ocean wave. James’ favourite. “Hasn’t he gotten sick of the Pasties yet?”

“Don’t think so,” Remus swallows a mouthful of brandy. “He says you’re very quiet sometimes, though. And he doesn’t know what to think of it. And, well, I might have –”

“Why should he think anything of it?” Sirius interrupts.

“When have you ever been quiet with James?” Remus asks pointedly.

Sirius’ stomach tightens. He’s never been quiet with James, if he’s going to be honest. Not before all this, anyway. And now, it feels like even under the lighthearted conversations about Quidditch, even when they’re sharing a moment or two of loud, glowing laughter – there’s always something splitting open like fissures underneath it all. Something in the way that James looks at him sometimes, like he’s wondering when it’ll be appropriate to ask about their history again. Like he’s daring Sirius, daring him to say everything that he’s biting back out loud.

Sirius rubs at the back of his neck, uncomfortable. “Well, he’s not – he’s not really the same James anymore, is he?”

“Of course he is, why shouldn’t he be?”

Sirius gulps down the rest of the contents in his glass, pretends not to notice the burn as it scorches past his throat. “You know what I mean.”

“No, actually, I don’t.”

“He was my best friend, Moony. We did everything together, all those years at Hogwarts and everything – how can he still be my best friend if he doesn’t even remember –“

“You’re not telling me you think your experiences made you best friends?” Remus raises his eyebrows, voice going unexpectedly sharp.

Sirius reaches to refill his glass and doesn’t reply. He doesn’t think that Remus can understand anyway – he isn’t the one who’s suddenly been hurtled into a past he’d been trying to dig his way out of for over a year.

“Merlin, Sirius, don’t be a fucking idiot,” Remus says. “I know what you’re thinking.“

“I’m not thinking anything.”

“You think he’s not the same James anymore.”

“I never said that.”

“You literally just –“

“It doesn’t matter,” Sirius snaps. An old wave of bitterness is threatening to seep into him, and he’s had enough of it, enough of trying to validate his feelings to anyone, even it’s Remus – nobody knows what it’s been like. Every single stitched-up scar from the last eighteen months has been freshly ripped open; it feels like he’s just bleeding red all over the fucking carpet and no one can see a thing.

“Sirius. You were his best friend since the moment you first laid eyes on him, before you even knew who he was.”

“But –“

“But nothing! How come you choose to spend more time with him than literally anybody else? We were in that train carriage together that very first day, weren’t we; all four of us? But it was James you wanted to stay up the whole night with when we arrived at Hogwarts. It was James you paired up with at every occasion, James that you confided in, even before Peter, or me. You always loved James best from that very first day, Padfoot – no, don’t look at me like that, I’m not complaining – and none of it had anything to do with your bloody experiences!”

“But he doesn’t remember a thing, Moony,” Sirius closes his eyes for a brief moment. The words taste like defeat, small and pathetic and hollow.

“So what? It’s not – it’s never been about that, Padfoot, because if it was then you’d be in love with me too, wouldn’t you, or you’d be in love with Peter,” – (Sirius scowls disgustedly) – “but you’re not. It’s James, it’s always been James, and not because of the experiences you had together. It’s because of who he is. And just because he can’t remember that doesn’t mean he’s not the same person you’ve been so fond of since you were eleven.”

"No, I know, but -"

Remus is looking at him with an intent, unfaltering gaze. The lamplight casts an orange tinge over his skin. “You’re frightened.”

A flare of heated irritation makes Sirius slam the glass back down onto the table in front of him. “I’m not fucking –“

“What are you scared about, Padfoot? I see the way you look at him. What are you trying not to say?”

For a moment, Sirius feels like he can’t breathe, can’t speak. Remus’ questions enter his mouth like a landslide, lodging into the back of his throat. They flood into all the emptied-out spaces inside his body; swelling, scratching, pressing against his organs and threatening to burst out violently through the skin.

What is he so fucking scared about? What is it that he’s trying not to say?

Everything in the room has turned into razor-edged shards, fragments, debris. It feels like the floor has disappeared under his feet.

“You want to tell him, Padfoot, don’t you? You want him to know. That you loved him, that you still do.”

Sirius stares down into his glass. He wants to say of course I do, it’s fucking killing me but the words don’t rest properly inside his mouth – they taste hoarse, ugly and shameful, choked-up like they’re about to fall off the edge of the earth.

Before Sirius has time to protest, Remus’ arms are winding around him. His body is warm, the fabric of his jumper rubs like fur against Sirius’ skin, and he can hear the echoes of his own heartbeat traveling frantically through his bloodstream. He wants to scramble out of the hug by pure instinct alone, because he doesn’t do this kind of thing, doesn’t ever sit like this and let himself be fucking cradled like a baby –

Remus.“

“Tell him,” Remus says, letting go of Sirius. “Maybe not about – not about everything, but –”

“But you said I shouldn’t.”

Remus exhales, eyes carefully surveying him in that same horrible, pitiful way he’d looked at him each time he’d come to see Sirius in the hospital.

“I – I wasn’t thinking about how you would’ve felt, Pads,” he says finally. “I was thinking of James, and it seemed like the best thing to do would be to give him time to adjust, but – it hadn’t occurred to me that you might be hurting –“

“I’m not.“

“You are, though,” Remus says, the words too quiet to exist for long in the space between them.

The light from the ceiling is falling down onto them like rain and something inside Sirius’ mouth tastes like broken glass.

“You said it’s too much for him.”

“Sirius, I – I can’t tell you what the right thing to do is, and I think you know that. You know him better than anyone in the whole world. You’re the only person who can tell if it’s too much for him.”

There’s never been too much with him and James, though, never been any rules or anything to establish order at all. Everything between them had happened like a forest fire, a fever, a goddamn avalanche. And fuck, it had nearly killed him when James tried to impose limits, hadn’t it? It had driven him to his bloody knees to whimper and beg for James like a fucking dog – and it was James shouting enough is enough that had finally hacked into Sirius like a – like a serrated knife or something, it was him shouting you always ask too fucking much of me and you never think about anything and you fucked this up, you fucked it all up

“He was so angry,” he croaks suddenly, and for a moment his fractured voice doesn’t even sound like his own. “He was angry, and he couldn’t even look at me, Moony, and all I wanted was –“

“I know,” Remus says quietly. “I’m sorry – I know this hurts. I know none of this has been easy for you.”

“No, it hasn’t.”

“Do you think it’ll ever get better unless you tell him?”

“No,” Sirius says. Hiding from James feels like he’s carrying something raven-black inside himself, something heavy and starved that sinks his bones like anchors.

“So do it.”

“It’s not that fucking simple, Remus,” Sirius exhales impatiently.

But it had been, at some point. In their fourth year at Hogwarts, so long ago that it feels like a different reality now, they’d been drinking outside near the bleachers of the Quidditch pitch. The wind had assaulted them like blades, but they were too young and bold to be bothered by it. Both of them were flushed from the game they’d played moments ago, warmed by the careless, brazen blaze of alcohol. Sirius remembers that they’d been laughing loudly over something stupid one moment, and then James was kissing him the next – and that was it. It had just happened, with no plan or thought or hesitation. No need to explain, no space of time at all between the ecstasy of laughter and the sudden, hurried heat of James’ mouth on his own.

It had all been so reckless, so easy.

“Sirius,” Remus says, after a minute of watching him. “He’s going to need a place to stay, once he’s discharged from St Mungo’s. And I – ”

“What’s happened to his house?”

“Not safe anymore,” Remus says. “He was attacked there, wasn’t he?”

The after-burn of brandy is unpleasant in Sirius’ mouth, everything in the room starting to blur into nebulous shadows of colour and smoke. “Can’t he go to yours?” he says, but the question sounds stupid and unnecessary as soon as he hears it, words slurring together uncertainly.

“There’s a full moon next week, Pads,” Remus hangs his head a little apologetically. “He needs someone to take care of him, and I won’t be able to.”

“Remus, you're not suggesting –“

“Where else would he go, Pads? Where else can he?”

“Peter’s,” Sirius says, but he knows at once that he’d rather throw James in front of the Whomping Willow than send him off to live with Pettigrew.

“Peter’s busy, he’s got a job at the Owl Post Office in Hogsmeade – lets him keep an eye on the school, notify the Order if there’s anything out of the ordinary.”

I’m busy,” he protests, annoyed that even Peter seems to be a more fucking contributive member of society than he’s been lately.

“He hasn’t got anybody else, Sirius,” Remus insists, and then more quietly, “he needs you.”

James needs him.

“Remus, I – ” Sirius opens and closes his mouth stupidly, blinking. And, oh. He’s definitely drunk now. “I don’t think I can, he can’t come here –“

“Just for a while,” Remus is leaning forward and placing his hands on Sirius’ wrists, the touch soft, reassuring and comforting. “Just until after the full moon, okay, Sirius? He can come stay with me after, if it’s too much for you, but until then – you can do that, can’t you? You can do it for James?”

Sirius is nodding before he’s even registered what Remus is trying to tell him. The information takes a few moments to slide into his head.

“Only till the end of the full moon, though, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Remus squeezes his wrists gently, and there’s a small smile in his voice as he says it. “Yeah, Pads, I promise.”

-

James grins like the fucking sun the next morning when Sirius brings him Pasties for breakfast again and tells him that he’s going to stay with him. “Brilliant! Do you know when I can be discharged?” he asks, shoving the Pasty into his mouth.

“Tomorrow,” Sirius sits across him. It’s strange, he thinks, how it’s nearly impossible to be bitter or angry when he’s alone with James like this. It still aches to look at him – but the pain feels like it’s from a different life or something, feels distant and subdued because this James has nothing to do with the James that broke his heart eighteen months ago. It seems stupid to resent one for the other, when it’s easier to just not.

James hurries to swallow down the Pasty, before reaching for his wand. “I’ve been practicing,” he explains eagerly to Sirius. “That levitation charm you taught me yesterday, remember?”

He’s exuberant and happy and Sirius can’t believe he’s going to be living with this living personification of the sun. His mouth twitches slightly at the excitement on James’ face. “Yeah? Show me, then.”

James performs an overly flourished movement of his wand, murmuring, “wingardium leviosa,” and the Pumpkin Pasty in his lap obediently rises into the air, hovering there for a few moments until he lowers his wand. His face screws up in concentration as he does it, and then he’s looking expectantly back at Sirius.

“You always were a natural,” Sirius says, watching him, and James beams at him in a way that makes something orange and fiery jerk inside Sirius’ chest.

“And you can teach me all the really cool ones as well, once I move in with you,” the words somehow seem to make their way out from behind the massive grin on James’ face, bright and glowing like fireworks. “And you’ve got a broomstick too! We could go flying, and we could even –“

“It’s only for a while though, James,” Sirius interrupts, because there’s no way he deserves all that excitement and euphoria in James’ voice right now. “Just until – it’s just for two weeks, yeah, and then you’ll be going to stay with Remus.”

“Oh,” James’ face falls as suddenly as it lit up, and he sinks a bit lower back against his pillows. “How come?”

“I’ve, uh –“ Sirius cards his fingers through his hair uncertainly and tries to think up of a legitimate reason that isn’t I think being around you too much would kill me. “I’m not the best at household spells, my place can get a bit – uh, it’s disorganized, sometimes –“

“Doesn’t matter,” James says immediately. “I don’t mind a mess.”

“Yeah, but, I’ve got – I can’t cook for shit, and you’re going to need proper food to recover –“

“I’ll live off Pasties,” James shrugs dismissively. “Next?”

“I can be a really awful housemate, I’m always in my room so you’ll get bored, and I have all sorts of nasty things crawling around in the fridge – “

“Bullshit,” James declares, with an unmistakable air of confidence that makes Sirius feel warm and dizzy in the head. “You know I’d love to stay with you. Even with your weird mood swings and impatience and everything.”

“I don’t have weird mood swings –“

“I’ll show you,” James puffs his chest out, giving him a brilliant smile that’s so blinding Sirius doesn’t know where else to look. “I’ll be the best housemate you could even think of having, Sirius – you are going to love having me around. You’ll never want me gone, ever. You’ll be begging me not to go to Remus’.”

Sirius looks back at James, at the way he’s so proud and sanguine and secure like nothing in the world could possibly ever hold him back. Like he’ll discover lost cities, end century-long wars, singlehandedly save the whole entire fucking world without even blinking. You can, Sirius had told him once, drunk on firewhiskey and lying with his head in James’ lap, you can do anything you want. James had laughed, said I think I’ll start with you and – fuck. It feels so stupid to be thinking of this now, to be missing James when he’s literally right here in front of him.

The conversation glides smoothly into a discussion of which spells James should learn next (he’s particularly curious about the more unpleasant hexes), and by mid-afternoon Remus arrives, bringing with him Honeydukes chocolates and tuna sandwiches for them to share. They talk about the Hogwarts and the Order and a hundred other things at once and Sirius barely even notices as the afternoon bends aside to give way to the gentle orange heat of twilight.

But even with Remus there, he finds it disconcertingly difficult to focus on anything but James. It’s like the spot where James is seated on his bed has caused some temporary curvature in space-time; everything, from Sirius’ gaze to his body to his thoughts, seems to gravitate inexplicably towards him.

At multiple points Sirius catches himself slipping into longing, stomach-clenching thoughts – like the way James’ mouth moves when he’s laughing, or how his fingers curl and press against the edge of the mattress when he’s saying something particularly fervent.

And, fuck. He doesn’t want to think about it, has trained himself not to think about this for over a year now, because there’s never been any bloody use, has there? No point sinking any lower than he already had. No point digging into the already caustic, emotional wound with an added blow of sexual depravity too. And, well, it had seemed manageable after the first few months apart, to forget the taste of James’ mouth or the sounds he’d made when they – shit, fuck

As the evening progresses, it gets difficult to ignore the heat rising to his face whenever James’ gaze lands on him for more than a few seconds. All his thoughts are accelerating toward this distracting, petulant urge to touch James – even if, at this point, he’s certain that so much as the slightest, simplest brush of James’ fingertips against his skin would result in him doing something extremely stupid – like crying, or coming in his pants.

He notices a second too late that the room as grown unusually quiet and both Remus and James are gazing expectantly at him. He looks back at them, confused, and then says, “What?

Remus smiles amusedly. “James was asking you a question.”

“What question?”

“I asked,” James says, “whether you bother anyone like that, the way you’re always staring.”

“I’m not always staring.”

“Are too. At me, anyway.”

Sirius crosses his arms, annoyed, but his face feels hot. “Why, does it bother you?”

James is grinning. “No, not at all.”

“Well, what’s the problem then?”

“There’s no problem,” James leans back against the pillows, hands behind his head – he must know, Sirius thinks irritably, how he looks doing that. “I’m just acknowledging it.”

“You asked if it bothers anyone.”

“It would creep most people out,” James says, then smiles again. “But I’m not most people, am I?”

Remus rolls his eyes. “Merlin, you’d think losing your memory might make you forget what a bloody egotist you are –“

James shrugs casually, says, “can’t really blame me for having an ego when he’s always looking at me like that.”

Sirius almost snorts. “Like what, exactly?”

“Like you want to –“

James,” Remus interrupts quickly, voice a tad bit louder than necessary. “We talked about this.”

“Talked about what?” Sirius demands immediately, turning to stare at him. “You talked about me?”

James is still smirking at him, eyes so afire they look like dark molten amber, glimmering with challenge. That look on his face drives something knife-sharp and hot into Sirius’ gut, twisting around in a way that makes him want to collapse from the heat.

“Yeah, we talked about you.”

The memory loss thing seems to have conveniently left out the part of James that sadistically gets off on riling Sirius up. “What did you talk about?”

James,” Remus groans again. “Enough.”

“No, tell me,” Sirius snaps, glaring at both of them. “I want to know what you fucking talked about.”

James is wearing that infuriating I know something you don’t expression and it makes Sirius want to shove him into the ground. “Remus says it’s a secret.”

“What secret?”

“A big secret,” James laughs giddily, pushing his glasses up his nose. “So big, in fact, that you could even say it would crush you –“

James!

“Oh, come off it, Remus, he’s not even trying to be subtle –“

“Subtle about what?” Sirius says loudly. His heart feels like it’s going to tear straight out of his chest with the force it’s suddenly slamming into his ribcage with.

Remus looks flustered and three shades too guilty. “I might have – well, James wanted to know why you’re always acting a bit odd when, you know –“

Sirius’ face is so flushed he can’t even feel the rest of his body. The effort of speaking is nearly unbearable. “What did you say to him, Remus?”

“He let slip something about you,” James’ face is bright and brilliantly alight now, and he’s clearly enjoying this. “Fancying me.”

JAMES!

“He fucking what?”

--

Chapter Text

Remus is already trying to scramble for cover, but Sirius is faster than him – within a second he’s on top of Remus, pinning the treacherous cunt down against the chair and pelting him with a hailstorm of unforgiving fists. “What the – fuck – fuck you, Remus, how could you fucking –“

Ow, fuck, stop – that hurts, you prick – get off me, it was an accident, I didn’t mean to!” Remus struggles under him. “He said you’re always acting weird with him, I just mentioned that you might’ve had a little crush, I didn’t say you still do, I just said you did, at some point – “

Why the fuck would you tell him that?” Sirius shouts, ignoring Remus’ yelps of pain as he hits him. “He’s coming to stay with me, you piece of –“

“Hey, I still want to come stay with you,” James interrupts loudly.

“No,” Sirius says at once, as Remus finally manages to shove him off, rubbing his bruised shoulders. “No fucking way.”

“Fuck you, that’s not fair!” James sits up suddenly, looking panicked. “Tear off all of Remus’ limbs if you want, but I’m not going anywhere else!”

“No,” Sirius snaps, throwing a violent look at Remus. “No – I’m not going to fucking – it’s not funny, you prick, it’s humiliating –“

“Nobody’s humiliating you!” James yells. “I still want to stay with you, it doesn’t fucking matter!”

It doesn’t fucking matter – you don’t know what you’re talking about, James!”

“Only because you’re too scared to tell me whatever it is you’re hiding –“

Scared?” Sirius shouts back, “oh, you just wait till you hear what I’ve got to say, you fucking –“

James hurls a pillow at Sirius. “So tell me!” 

Sirius’ chest is too tight for the rapid breaths he’s trying to take as he smacks the pillow aside. “No,” he says, his voice clipping roughly. “Fuck it – I’m going out for a cigarette.”

“I’m coming,” James declares at once, jumping out of the bed.

No –“

Sirius tries to make a run for it, darting right of the room and past the labyrinth of hospital corridors – James, apparently recovered enough to chase after him, following close behind and jostling through the minor obstacles of Healers and patients alike, until they’re both panting outside in the thin, wispy night air.

With his ribs aching, Sirius leans against a lamppost, and scowls as James comes to a halt a few steps in front of him.

“Hey –“ James starts, but Sirius cuts him off with a furious glare as he pulls out the pack of cigarettes and lights one hastily.

“No,” he says again. “I won’t have it.”

“No, listen,” James says, and his voice is lowered, almost bordering on the edge of a plea, “I didn’t think you’d take it like this – but I have nowhere else to go, Sirius, I have no one else to go to.”

The urgent, needy look on his face makes the smoke taste sour in Sirius’ mouth, but he doesn’t say anything.

“I won’t ever mention it again if you don’t want me to, but I – I really want to stay with you,” James’ eyes are as close to apologetic as Sirius has ever seen them, wide and raw, “please. I don’t even care about what Remus said, honestly, I don’t, and I didn’t mean to –“

“What else did he tell you?”

“What? Nothing!”

“Are you sure?” for a moment, Sirius’ lungs feel like they’re shrinking, but the confused expression on James’ face settles his fears almost immediately.

“Yeah, ‘course I am!” he says defensively. “Look, I shouldn’t have said all that stuff in the ward, I was just being stupid, I don’t know why I –“

“Of course you do, it’s because you’re James fucking Potter,” Sirius snorts, feeling the panic subside considerably now that it’s clear James doesn’t know anything else. “Attention is to you what air is to the rest of us.”

James’ eyebrows rise at that, but he seems unwilling to give in to the bait so easily. “Sirius. I promise I’ll never ever say another a word about this –“

“Okay, okay,” Sirius grunts, his annoyance turning insipid, like it’s always done, in the face of James’ genuine vulnerability.  “But it’s like I said – just for a while.”

James’ face breaks into a relieved smile, and some of the warmth on his face feels like it’s somehow transferred under Sirius’ ribs.

He clears his throat unnecessarily after a moment, trying not sound as ludicrous as he feels. “Whatever Remus said about me – don’t let it get to your head, okay. It’s nothing.”

James looks like he’s putting in physical effort to not reply with anything snarky, and he even manages a strained smile. “Yeah. I know. Promise I’ll never mention it again.”

Sirius nods and takes the last finishing puffs of his cigarette, trying not to let the injured pride show, trying to force out a rough laugh and let this whole incident pass unnoticed. James waits patiently, not saying anything until Sirius flings the cigarette aside. When he’s done, the two of them turn back toward the hospital, walking back in together with none of the irritated fury they’d rushed out with.

“When I move in with you I suppose I’ll have to start buying my own Pasties,” James says.

When I move in with you. The concept still seems so faraway, when nearly two weeks ago if someone had told him James would be coming to stay with him, Sirius would have promptly hexed them and told them to fuck off. He tries to imagine what it will be like, sharing such proximity with his best friend again, after – after such a fucking long time, wonders if he’ll ever even get used to the way it feels to have James around.

“Yeah,” he says as they re-enter the ward. “I’m tired of waking up early for you anyway. I need my sleep.”

James grins at him again. “Sleep? You do know I’m never letting you sleep again.”

Sirius rolls his eyes at the way James sounds like a fucking child going for a sleepover. “You’re still an invalid in my books, so I expect you to remain bedridden for the duration of your stay.”

Remus is still in the room, and he looks up anxiously when they return. “Oh, thank God,” he says, “I thought you’d killed each other out there.”

You are still not forgiven, you fucking traitor,” Sirius scowls at him.

“Luckily, Sirius and I are going to overlook this unfortunate occurrence,” James declares, flopping back onto the hospital bed. “Looks like you might not be losing all your limbs after all.”

“Oh, Sirius and you?” Remus scoffs. “What, you’re tag-teaming against me now?”

Sirius pretends to ignore it, but there’s a brief flicker of pride along his sternum at that, the way it feels so natural that James and him are a pair; unbeatable, inseparable, even by their best friends. This is how it used to be, how it always should have been, dammit.

A large part of him wants to argue that it’s ridiculous, that this stupid inkling of hope being harboured somewhere inside him will never reach the light, that eighteen months should have fucked him up enough to teach him his bloody lesson, that he should know how this ends, but – but there’s some insurrectionist defiance clawing away at the husk of these thoughts, one that’s been growing steadily since the moment James fucking smiled at him.

That’s the worst part; that under all this craving, the feeling that James left behind is still raw, still tender, still hurts to fucking touch. It’s this reminder that serves as a final obstacle in the losing battle Sirius has been waging with his reason, and even that sometimes seems so minute, so insignificant compared to what he really wants…

No, Sirius snaps the thought in two before it can fully materialize in his head. No, it’s not going to happen again and you better learn to live with that.

From the other side of the room, James is still talking to Remus, but Sirius can feel the singe of his gaze without even having to look.

--

Sirius barely sleeps all night.

In the morning his apartment feels different, like James has already changed it without being here. Apprehension hovers in the air, mingled with nervous excitement. James has been here before, of course, thousands of times, and the anticipation of things going back to the way they used to be – fuck, it’s almost too much to take.

He spends an additional fifteen minutes performing some household spells around the flat in an attempt to make it more presentable, but part of him already knows James will prefer it in its usual state of disarray. Once that’s done, he hurries out the door so swiftly that he almost laughs at his own unfettered enthusiasm. Within moments he’s Apparating smoothly onto the street outside of St Mungo’s, damn near bouncing on the balls of his feet.

Remus is already waiting outside there with James, in a brown cloak that flutters slightly as Sirius arrives in front of them. James is no longer in the plain hospital gown – and it less than a moment’s glance for Sirius to notice how sharp he looks now, dressed in handsome black robes that Remus must’ve given him. His hair is in its usual mess, unkept and appearing lighter under the sun, and even though it shades most of his face the smile that appears immediately when he sees Sirius is unmistakeable.

Sirius feels himself grinning back. “Hello. I’m not late, am I?”

“No,” James says, stepping forward. “They’ve just released me. How are we getting to yours? Can we Apparate?”

Remus glances at Sirius. “That would be the fastest way, but…”

“But what?”

“But nothing,” Sirius interrupts, ignoring the warmth flaring under his collarbones. He knows, of course, why Remus is hesitant. James can’t Apparate so he’ll have to travel with Sirius – and that involves him having to hold onto Sirius’ arm, a small act that seems comically magnified when even the merest thought of any physical contact with James is enough to make Sirius’ stomach drop.

“Well, okay,” Remus says. “I’ve already told Peter to go collect your things from your own home. He’ll be round this evening, is that okay? I’ll swing by for dinner as well.”

“Can we go now?” James asks. “I want to see where Sirius lives.”

Sirius looks at him, mentally trying to prepare himself – James is going to be touching him. He forces his mind to blank out and holds out an arm stiffly. “Come on, then. Grab hold. ”

“See you later, Remus.”

James has got barely a moment to grab onto Sirius before he pops them away. The short journey is uncomfortable and sudden enough that Sirius can barely feel James’ fingers tightening, alarmed, over his arm, before they’re both outside his flat.

Once they’re on the ground Sirius pulls his arm away instinctively, like a dog that’s just sniffed a trap.

“Jheeze,” James is straightening his glasses, looking mildly ruffled. “Surely it can’t be that unpleasant to Apparate every time.”

Sirius feels himself laughing. “You get used to it, I think. Doesn’t beat a broomstick, though, but the Ministry’s always fretting about wizards being attacked if they’re flying too low. Last month they pushed for this rulebook of sorts you need to comply with just to be able to fly on your broom.”

James’ face wrinkles, like he’s disgusted at the very thought of it. “Doesn’t that defeat the whole point of flying?”

Sirius sighs. “You’d think so, wouldn’t you. Things are changing, though, these days. Everyone’s nervous with the war going on. Death Eaters are torturing people for sport, and even the best Aurors are dropping like flies.”

He says the words casually, almost without thinking, but they immediately seem to grow and darken once they’re out of his mouth. They fill the room like poison, sticky and ugly.

James is picking at his fingernail, but his face looks like it’s about to crumple. “He’s the reason behind all this, isn’t he? He Who Must Not Be fucking Named. He’s the reason Lily’s dead, the reason I can’t remember anything – if I weren’t so fucking handicapped –“

“James, no,” Sirius cuts him off, and he knows he should try to be placating, but the mention of the dark lord has already caused a surge of anger to blaze, red and furious, inside him. None of this is fucking fair. There’s so much injustice in the war that Voldemort has caused and the only people who seem to be paying the price are the good ones. “You’re right, he’s a piece of shit and you have every right to want to fight back. And I promise you that when the time comes, we will fight. All of us, with everything we’ve got. But for now –”

“Will we go after them?” James says quietly, and there’s an intensity in his eyes that makes Sirius’ bones feel like they’ve turned to liquid. “The Death Eaters who did this to me?”

“Of course we will,” Sirius says at once, and he doesn’t even think we don’t know who they are or how will we find them or you can barely Stupefy someone, how could you go after Death Eaters – he only thinks that this is something he has to do, that being cruel and vindictive is the only way to respond to anyone who would hurt James. “Of course we’ll go after them, Prongs.”

--

Later, they drink through the evening with two bottles of nettlewine, and Remus and Peter join them for dinner, and everyone’s laughing together at the table, like a real-life snapshot from the old days, and thoughts about the war flit away again.

Sirius becomes aware that this is beginning to feel too easy, this whole act of everyone pretending like the last eighteen months have been waved away, cigarette smoke into the night air. It’s like they’re saying this is how it could have been, you know, this is how good it could have been and he doesn’t know if he wants to keep up the act or rip it to shreds before it starts to hurt again.

James is the only one who seems to share some sense of unease with him, and he says this, when they’re standing alone outside for a few minutes in the balcony while Sirius smokes. “It’s all we can do, though, isn’t it?” he’s watching the grey clouds dissipate slowly between them. “Pretend that everything’s normal until it actually is?”

“Will it ever be, though?”

“It’s kind of them, to do it,” James says after a moment, ignoring the question. “They know I’d be miserable otherwise, anyway. This might be a difficult concept for you to grasp, Sirius,” he grins at him, “but sometimes there are other things to do, than wallowing in your own sadness all the time.”

“Fuck off, I do other things too,” Sirius tosses the cigarette over the wiry metal railing. “Sometimes I brood.”

James laughs, and just like that, the wariness that had cut a valley open inside Sirius just minutes ago is gone. It must be magic of a whole different sort, he thinks, how just being alone with James feels like an instantaneous remedy any type of discomfort.

“I think you need to learn how to like being happy,” James tells him, rolling his head backwards on his shoulders so that he’s tipping slightly over the edge of the balcony. “I know moodiness is your whole brand or whatever, but still.”

Sirius feels the corners of his mouth lift slightly. “Mm, well, maybe I like being moody.”

“You’re right,” James says after a moment, nonchalant. “You’re like a storm living as a person.”

The words catch Sirius by surprise.

“But I like that about you, weirdly enough,” James lifts his head back up again so that his eyes can meet Sirius’ – cocoa-coloured and insouciant, like he doesn’t know that he looks like the most mesmeric thing in the world right now. “I think a lot of people must do, even if they don’t understand it. Everyone loves a good tragedy.”

“I’m not a fucking tragedy,” Sirius tries to laugh, but it comes out sounding hollow and rough around the edges.

James smiles at him, like he can see through it, and suddenly Sirius feels like he’s stark naked.

The vulnerability slices into him without warning, going through every single one of his organs and leaving him gushing red all over. He finds his body tightening, like a clenched fist. “You don’t know the first thing about me, James,” he says through bared teeth. “Don’t act like you do.”

James’ eyes widen in surprise at the sudden hostility, but he quickly recovers and squares back up. “What about me knowing you always bothers you so much?”

“It doesn’t fucking bother me – “

“Do you think I’m going to be afraid of you?”

Sirius is snarling before he knows it, crimson and feral. His knuckles are aching to punch something. “You’re fucking pushing it, James, I swear to God –”

James steps forward stubbornly. “Or – is it worse? Do you think I’m going to fall in love with you?”

“Shut the fuck up if you know what’s good for you,” he hisses, and without really understanding how it’s happened, Sirius is pointing his wand at James, every molecule in his body white-hot with fury. “Don’t you dare say another fucking word, you fucking – ”

“What in the name of Merlin is going on out here?”

Remus has stepped into the balcony past the curtains, and his face looks pale with shock. He looks between them, like he’s demanding an explanation. “Are you crazy, Sirius, put that wand away! He’s just stepped out of the hospital today, are you trying to send him back already?”

“No,” Sirius hastily lowers his wand and stuffs it back into his robes. James is still standing frozen in front of him, and Sirius tries not to look at him while talking. “But he’ll find himself on the streets if he’s not careful.”

“Are you okay, James?” Remus asks, like James is the one he should be worried about right now.  

“Of course I am,” he says loudly, making it a point to glare at Sirius, “I’m not sure all of us here are, though.”

Sirius opens his mouth to answer but James is already storming back inside, slamming the balcony door behind him. The noise makes an owl take flight from a nearby tree, hooting indignantly.

--

Chapter Text

“Can you fucking believe him?” Sirius roars at Remus, once James is gone.

Remus steps back, slightly. “What happened, exactly?”

Sirius tries to explain but fumbles around the furious, boiling words. It’s difficult to actually speak, now that the full realization of James’ words are slamming into him. “He said – he asked if I – if I thought he would fall in love with me,” he splutters, anger filling him again. Who does James think he fucking is? “How fucking dare he talk to me like that – after –“

“Padfoot, Pads, stop that, don’t work yourself up,” Remus says quickly, waving his hands in front of Sirius to get his attention. “James doesn’t know what he’s saying. He’s careless with words, he always has been.”

“How could he even fucking think of –“

“Because he doesn’t know, Sirius,” Remus interrupts, and his voice is quiet but firm, like an anchor falling into sea. “He doesn’t know what happened, so how can he know why it makes you so angry? He’s just pushing your buttons for fun, and I don’t think he could have had any way of realizing that this was too far.”

Sirius takes a deep breath, and the air streaming into his chest still feels heated.

“You can’t be angry at him for something he doesn’t even know about,” Remus is raising his eyebrows. “That’s hardly fair to him at all. I know,” he says, seeing the look on Sirius’ face, “that he’s capable of being a prick about it, but that’s just the way James is and you know that better than anyone.”

Sirius massages his temples and decides after a moment that Remus is probably right.

“I know – I know that you just don’t want to get hurt again,” Remus tells him, dusting at his own robes absently. “But you need to stop confusing James just being brash and annoying now with what he’s done to you before.”

“He could do it again, you know,” Sirius spits out the coarse, ugly words, and they dig like bullets back into his own skin. “If he did it to me once he could do it again.”

“Oh, Pads,” Remus’ eyes soften immediately, and Sirius hates that, hates that somehow he warrants pity out of Remus, the fucking werewolf. “You don’t know – how hard that was for him…”

“I don’t care how hard it was, Remus,” Sirius grits his teeth, “I only care that after everything I did for him, everything we had, he still had it in him to do it. He knew it would’ve killed me, he knew I would’ve died rather than lose him, and he didn’t even fucking –”

He stops talking, swallowing away the rest of the sentence with a heave. The bitterness in his words is now sharp and familiar, swelling thickly inside him.

There are so many things he wants to shout. I would’ve done anything for him. I dug graves in my heart for him to lay his demons to rest. How could he not understand that? How could he not know that he was all I wanted?

But there’s no use to trying to describe the way it feels to Remus, to anyone. No matter how many words he coughs up, bloodstained, dirty or raw, they don’t come anywhere close to telling what it’s actually been like the last year and a half.

Remus is looking at him, the expression on his face fragmented with sadness. “I’m sorry,” he says, “There isn’t any justification for the way he treated you, none at all, but – Padfoot, he was reckless and harsh and blind, but he loved you.”

“Loved me?” Sirius repeats savagely, hackles rising. “Merlin, if you believe that, then you’re as stupid as –“

“Sometimes people love more than they know what to do with it,” Remus interrupts. “And they become desperate to destroy it before it destroys them.”

The memories come pelting down onto Sirius, quick and violent. How the days had been falling into each other like a tumbling house of cards, all splattered with the same heartbroken, miserable loneliness. And all of it, for James, who hadn’t been there. James, who wouldn’t have cared to be even if he could. Who, at that point, was no more than a fucking spectre in Sirius’ life, a ghost that he’d had to learn how to live around, carrying inside him like the symptoms of a disease.

Remus says, “I won’t say that what he did to you was right or that you deserved any of it. But I will tell you that it ate away at him, all those months, even if he didn’t show it. He wasn’t himself for weeks when he’d found out you were in the hospital – but you know how James is, him and his pride, he insisted to everyone that you were a powerful enough wizard that you wouldn’t be able to kill yourself, even if you’d tried – but he was fucking nervous, and everyone knew it, terrified that one morning someone would send an owl and make him realize his worst fear.”

Sirius’ body feels cold and numb all over, like his veins have been filled with fistfuls of ice. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t anyone?”

“Why shoot curses at a bird when its wings are already broken?”

Sirius can’t speak, can’t breathe or think past the tsunami wave of heartache that’s suddenly surging through him. It’s the only thing that he’d wanted all those months, the one fucking thing he needed – to know that James still cared, to know that there was still an echo of tenderness sitting buried somewhere inside him – it was the one, tiny, shriveling thing Sirius could have been able to hold on to, and yet – hadn’t James refused him even that? Hadn’t he been cruel and dismissive and cold, even when Sirius was crying in front of him like a fucking child, his heart pouring blood all over his hands?

“My point is, Pads,” Remus clears his throat, after a long silence. “He wouldn’t have cut you off like that if he could’ve helped it – you need to understand that James isn’t inclined toward hurting you; it tormented him, and even though he can’t remember anything now, I’m sure he’ll be glad of any reason to avoid doing it again.”

A piece of Sirius falls off his body, like an emotional limb, rolling across the ground and tumbling down off the balcony. He feels like he’s running out of ways to get used to the hollowness or feel whole again.

“Just – start over with him, okay?” Remus sighs, lashes lifting as he looks up intently at Sirius. “It’s been barely two weeks and it’s obvious to Peter and me that he already likes you best. Give him a chance. I think that both of you deserve to have your best friends back.”

--

Remus ends up staying over, claiming that it’s for James’ safety in case Sirius finds something else to fight about. James has already locked himself inside his assigned bedroom by the time Remus and Sirius step back inside from the balcony, and refuses to re-emerge for the rest of the night.  

The next morning they have breakfast together and James doesn’t join them until both Remus and Sirius are nearly done with their toast. His eyebrows raise at the Pumpkin Pasty that’s been waiting for him on the table.

“Is this meant to be an apology?” he snorts, looking at Sirius, but sits down and starts eating it anyway.

“Of sorts,” Sirius says, shrugging and trying not to notice how James looks, with traces of sleep still caught around his eyes and his morning hair. “There’s a very small chance I might have over-reacted, a little bit, last night. In any case, I shouldn’t have pointed my wand at you, especially since you can’t even defend yourself.”

“Thank you for talking some sense into him,” James nods at Remus, then, at Sirius, “and thanks for the Pasty.”

“Here, I’ve got you something else too,” Sirius waves his wand and a heavy box sitting in the corner of the room zooms toward them, stopping short of the dining table. When Sirius lowers his wand it slams onto the ground with a dull thud next to James.

James abandons the Pasty immediately and reaches for the box, working at tearing it open with unmistakable excitement. He digs around the contents and takes one out, holding up a purple book with dark leather bindings. “Spellbooks?” he grins, looking up at Sirius.

“One of these days you might piss me off again and I’d like for you to be able to at least throw some countercurses back at me,” Sirius says. “Otherwise it’s like punching a baby. There’s no triumph in it.”

Remus rolls his eyes, but James looks delighted as he continues going through the box, discovering a collection of Sirius’ old textbooks on everything from Transfiguration to Herbology, books about Quidditch that he’d borrowed from the library at Hogwarts and managed to never actually give back, clippings from detention notices the two of them had received, even old photographs of James in his Quidditch uniform, manically waving around the trophy Cup he’d won for Gryffindor that year.

James is beaming so much that it seems to fill the whole room with light. “Hey – thanks, Sirius,” he says earnestly. “This is brilliant.”

Sirius doesn’t say anything, but the base of his abdomen is glowing with warmth at the look on James’ face.

Remus leaves after breakfast, and Sirius decides to dedicate the rest of the day to teaching James new spells, ignoring Remus’ advice to start with simple charms and going solely with James’ requests to learn the most hideous hexes he can find in the books. He’s a fast learner, equipped with both talent and boundless enthusiasm, and as the morning climbs into evening, they find themselves running around the apartment, throwing jinxes at each other and ducking behind the furniture to avoid getting hit.

Sirius notices, with considerable satisfaction, that James doesn’t seem at all subdued despite their argument last night. If Sirius had exploded like that in front of anyone else, they would’ve spent the entirety of the next week treading cautiously around him, nervous about setting him off again – but James is equal parts unbothered and audacious, and Sirius might even have been annoyed by the unbridled provocations James is throwing at him if he didn’t find James so bloody entertaining.

And, fuck – he loves it. There’s no other way of putting it. He still can’t believe that James is back here again, his loud laughter echoing off the walls, taking up every spare inch of space that’s available in the flat. James’ presence is so obvious and palpable, and Sirius can’t fucking get enough of it, can’t help thinking that this is all he’s ever needed; he wants to just stay here and bask in James’ company for the rest of his life. He doesn’t know how he managed to forget this, how he ever lasted a second without it when it’s more delicious than anything in the world.

It’s only hours later, once James has had sardines spilling out of his nose for the tenth consecutive time, that he finally declares that he’s had enough. Sirius performs a hex-breaker on him, and the two of them settle down onto the sofa, panting. They’re not touching, Sirius notes, but the proximity is enough to make it feel like they are.

“Why Prongs?” James says after a moment, swinging his legs haphazardly over the edge of the couch.

“It’s your Animagus,” Sirius blinks, slightly distracted by the movement.

“And an Animagus is…?”

Sirius sits up, surprised. “Has Remus not mentioned it to you?”

James shakes his head slowly.

Sirius feels himself grin. “Well, brace yourself,” he says, and even before the intention to do so has fully formed in his mind, he feels his body changing; limbs being retracted in, teeth drawn out into his widening mouth, canine eyes blinking up at the look of bewilderment on James’ face.

James yelps, jumping backwards at once. “What the fuck?”

Padfoot lifts his head, letting out a low whine.

James stares at him, wide-eyed for a moment, and then starts laughing. The noise immediately makes Padfoot’s tail accelerate into an uncontrollable wag. He takes a few steps toward him and jumps up onto the couch, letting James take hold of one of his paws and examine it.

Padfoot, of course,” James smiles, “you’re bloody adorable as well. And you still look like you!”

Padfoot lets his tongue loll out of his mouth and barks. James’ fingers are buried in the black coat of fur, scratching around his midsection in a way that makes his tail go even faster.

“I think I prefer you like this,” James says, tilting his head to the side and laughing when Padfoot licks at his hand. “Alright, go on then, can you change between dog and human any time you want?”

Padfoot bounds off the couch and onto the carpet. A second later his body is morphing once more, spine straightening out and tufts of fur disappearing until he’s Sirius again – standing in front of James, who immediately jumps up.

“An Animagus,” Sirius says, flushing slightly at James’ genuine amazement, “is someone who can change into an animal whenever they want to.”

“That’s literally the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard,” James gapes at him, clearly impressed. “Can I do it too?”

“You used to, yeah,” Sirius sits back down onto the sofa and James mirrors the movement. “You were a stag, antlers and all – hence the nickname.”

James looks like he doesn’t even know what to do with this exciting new information. “And Peter and Remus? They can do it too?”

“Well – Peter can,” Sirius says.

“How come Remus can’t?”

“I don’t think I’m really the person to tell you that,” Sirius says, a little uncomfortably. “Remus won’t mind you knowing, obviously, but it’s just not my place to say.”

“Do you think I can still do it?” James asks, obviously more interested in his own animal transformation. “

 “It’s an acquired skill, so yeah, but it’s a pain in the fucking arse,” Sirius says, even though he knows this will do nothing to deter James. “You can try to do it again, if you really want, but it’s not easy.”

“Of course I want to,” James dismisses the warning almost instantly. “When can we start? Do you remember how to do it?”

“Not in great detail, but it’s a good thing I’ve saved all my old textbooks. Come on, the method will be in there somewhere.”

James follows him toward the big pile of books Sirius has given him, and together they plop down onto the carpet beside it.

“It’ll be in one of the Transfiguration books, so start here,” Sirius tells him, pushing a few books into James’ arms. “It’s meant to be very dangerous, but we pulled it off in Hogwarts without anyone knowing, so I wouldn’t worry too much as long as we follow the instructions carefully enough. A lot of it relies on chance too, I think, the weather’s got to be perfect, and there was definitely something about collecting dew that hasn’t been touched for seven days.”

“How long does the whole thing take?”

“It took us ages, but only because the weather was never right for it and we kept having to start over. It’s only meant to take like a month or so, I’m pretty sure, if you do everything perfectly the first time.”

They pore through the books for several tedious hours, as night falls soundlessly over the sky outside. Sirius tries not to keep glancing up at James while he’s reading, the way he did when he was fifteen, when they’d stayed up late in the common room trying to cram for their O.W.L.s, but it’s difficult – James is every bit as magnetic now as he was back then, with his forehead slightly creased in concentration and his glasses on a slow, extremely distracting decline down the edge of his nose.

Sirius is starting to wonder how much more of this he can take. It’s getting ridiculous, he thinks, the way his eyes are constantly being drawn, like an overeager moth with a flame, to the slight jump of pulse on James’ neck, the rustle of his lashes when he blinks, even the throb of his Adam’s apple each time he swallows. James is so unbelievably attractive that it shouldn’t make any sense at all, so fucking good-looking that it’s almost infuriating. It makes desire, stupid and desperate, lick like a starving dog at Sirius' stomach. The want fills his entire body like a cauldron, overflowing and volatile.

Sirius tries to keep a level head but the letters on the page in front of him are going blurry, and all he wants is to throw his body like a knife onto James.

It’s almost a relief when James finally shouts, “Aha!” waving his book around, and Sirius blinks out of his daze.

He puts on what he hopes is a face of vague interest as James launches into a long, detailed narration of the method for becoming an Animagus, reading aloud from the book, and Sirius uses the opportunity to collect his hungry thoughts back together and bundle them furiously away into the side of his brain.

“We can go buy the ingredients tomorrow!” James is shouting, having worked himself into a standing-up position in his excitement and bouncing from one foot onto another. “First thing in the morning!”

“You weren’t even as wired up about this last time, you know,” Sirius grumbles, rubbing his shoulder when James accidentally kicks the pile of fat books and sends them tumbling down noisily onto Sirius.

James ignores him and focuses his attention on bookmarking the important chapter, setting the book lovingly onto the dining table. It’s only when he sees the leftover dishes sitting there that Sirius realizes they haven’t eaten since breakfast.

Bloody typical, Remus would’ve said, and the thought makes Sirius smirk, you’re so caught up in each other that you forget to fucking eat.

“D’you want to go and get something for dinner?” he asks suddenly, then, annoyed by his own eagerness, adds, “I can’t cook for shit.”

“Yeah, ‘course,” James replies. “Merlin, now that you mention it, I’m fucking starving.”

“I’m doing a very poor job of looking after you, clearly,” Sirius snorts, reaching for his cloak and pulling it on briskly. “Remus would be appalled.”

“Well, Remus doesn’t need to know everything,” James’ eyes are twinkling. “So where are we going on our dinner date tonight, handsome?”

Sirius rolls his eyes. “I’d eat anything, really, at this point.”

“Okay, but wherever it is, can we walk there? I’m not too fond of Apparating yet.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Sirius shrugs, pushing open the door, and steps outside into the misty night air with his best friend.

--

He’s not sure how, but after dinner they somehow end up in the Leaky Cauldron, challenging each other to down Gamp’s Old Gregarious beer, famous both for its revolting taste and the fact that no one has ever managed to finish an entire pint of it in three hundred years, despite the hundred-Galleon reward.

He’s very clearly drunk if he’s conceding to this, Sirius decides, grimacing at the extraordinary pungency wafting out of the pint glass in front of him.

“It’ll have you sick to your stomach for days, you know,” the old witch at the bar had murmured when she saw what they’d ordered, and rather than serve as a warning it seems to have spurred James on even more.

Now they sit, with the ugly brown liquid sloshing in glasses between them.

“On the count of three?” James says.

“This is a terrible idea.”

“I know,” he grins, glasses slightly askew. “One… two… three!”

Sirius grabs the glass in front of him and starts chugging but it only takes a few swallows to make his eyes water, tongue smarting sharply from the hideous taste. James is struggling too, choking and spluttering, and within a minute both of them give up.

“I surrender!” James shouts, pushing the beer away from him.

Sirius is too busy coughing violently to reply.

They decide to switch to beetle berry whiskey after that, which is sweet and strong enough to wash out the taste of Gamp’s beer. They sit in the same pub, drinking and talking, while the hours burn away with neither of them realizing it.

“Do you think I’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever remember, Padfoot?” James asks, leaning forward on the table with his head in his hands. His eyes are going glassy and a little bit bloodshot with tiredness.

It’s the first time James has called him that nickname since the hospital. Sirius takes a moment to slowly let this register, then says, “Well, not all of it needs remembering.”

“Are there things that you’d forget if you could?”

Sirius exhales. James’ outlines seem to be softening, becoming less distinct, like Sirius is looking at him underwater. There are spots of light dancing in his eyes, and they don’t move even when he tries to blink them away. “Of course there are,” he says, and it comes out less ashamed than he thinks it should. “Everyone’s got shit they wish never happened.”

“Like that fight we had,” James looks up, and it’s not a question. “When we stopped talking.”

“Mm.”

“Did you never try to come and make it right again?”

Even while embarrassingly drunk Sirius has to fight the urge to roll his eyes and throw his hands up in the air. This is classic James, always assuming that it’s everybody else’s responsibility to make amends with him, always being the one who’s fucking right all the time. “No, James,” he says, slightly irritated by this. “You wouldn’t have wanted me to, anyway.”

James sighs. He looks like he’s trying to decide on whether or not he should say what he wants to say.

No,” Sirius tells him, reading his expression. “We’re not going to talk about it.”

James scowls at him and pushes his empty glass away forcefully. “You always say that.”

“I have good reason to.”

“Don’t patronize me, it’s fucking frustrating when you refuse to tell me anything,” James stabs a finger into the wooden table. “I feel like there’s this massive, vitally important piece of information that nobody wants to fill me in on and it only ever comes up in stupid bits and pieces that don’t make any sense.”

“I know, but –“

“We were best friends? The very best of friends, and we stopped talking? And now we’re okay again? Just like that, just because I’ve woken up and not been able to remember whatever happened? It doesn’t add up, Sirius, and you know it.”

Sirius can feel the beginnings of an argument brewing, fire-breathed and tense, but realizes he’s far too drunk and exhausted to be able to put up a fight. “Leave it,” he says tiredly, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’m not in the mood.”

James gives him a sour look, but thankfully decides not to push it. He resolutely chooses to change topics after that, and the tension sitting between them diffuses bit by bit as Sirius folds the memories away, pushes them into a corner and looks the other way.

They stay till the pub closes, and James is able to take a grand total of two clumsy, stumbling steps before he’s falling forward with a loud crash that seems echoed across the dark, quiet street. The moon in the sky is nearly full, bright and ghostly. Sirius prods at him with a wand, but it quickly becomes apparent that James is neither conscious nor in any position to be walking home.

“You’re absolutely useless, you know,” he snorts, bending down and lightly pushing James’ hair off his forehead with the wand. “Eighteen months and you still haven’t learned to hold your drink.”

Sirius heaves him up from under both arms, and then, staggering slightly under the weight, throws a quick glance around before Apparating back to his apartment.

It’s not until he’s dragged James into the room and is about to lay him down that he actually becomes aware of what he’s doing. The realization that he's holding James causes him to drop the latter abruptly, who lands on the bed with a grunt and promptly rolls over onto his stomach. Sirius looks at him, properly looks, and feels like hitting himself in the face for thinking that somehow, even in this state of disgrace, he finds James endearing.

He sits on the edge of the bed, staring at the sleeping body. “Stop asking me what happened, you bugger,” he tells James, though he’s not sure why. “I’m trying to start over with you, like Remus said I should.”

Well - what does starting over even mean? Does it mean no longer feeling any of the wounds James had inflicted on him? Does it mean pretending that none of that ever happened, because as far as James is concerned now, none of it ever has? Does it mean trying again, from scratch, to become what they used to be to each other – or moving on, accepting that being friends should be enough, that just having James around should be enough, no matter how much he wants more? Does Sirius deserve to consider himself through any of this, or should he be putting James first again, the way he’s always done, even if it’s terrifying?

“Where the fuck were you?” he says, the words so quiet that they’re just a rush of air leaving his mouth. Something pricks at the back of his eyes. “Why did you have to wait until you’d forgotten everything before coming back to me?”

This is what he’d wanted, to have James reappear in his life again like something out of a dream. And yet – even if, somehow, miraculously, James falls in love with him again, won’t he deserve to know what had happened between them? Won’t Sirius be able to still feel the guilt of the past, running like bruises under James’ skin, every time they touch?

How the fuck does James keep crawling into his veins like this? Sirius doesn’t even feel safe under his own fucking armour anymore. Is it even still love, if all it does is drive you mad?

James makes a hmmph noise and pulls the pillow closer towards himself.

Sirius sighs, getting up off the bed. It’s difficult to have to draw himself away but the waves of tiredness are spilling into his bloodstream and he presently can’t think of anything worse than James waking up in the morning and finding Sirius asleep at the foot of his bed. He moves toward the door and steps outside, but pauses for the briefest moment to look one last time at the snoring boy.

“You are a fucking riddle, James Potter, I’ll tell you that,” he says, shaking his head, and shuts the door.

--

Chapter Text

Two weeks of living together become a month, a month becomes several, and by the time December uncloaks itself to reveal a pale and frosty winter, it becomes clear that James is not going anywhere.

The apartment starts looking more and more like a place that’s inhabited by two people instead of just one. James’ possessions, which had begun with several clothes and have now built up into a sizable collection of personal items, books, bottles of liquor, and even a new broomstick, are peppered all over the place with no sense of organization whatsoever, sometimes in shared piles with Sirius’ things and sometimes in whichever empty space he manages to find. They spend nearly every minute with each other, practicing spells or drinking, and when things start becoming too quiet they find themselves getting into harmless fights that fizzle out within a few hours.

Most of the novelty of just seeing James after so long fades eventually, and Sirius is happy for this – as the weeks pass by, they quickly shed their stranger skins and begin to resemble their old, perfectly complemented pair.

All in all, Sirius thinks it’s going really well.

It’s there, of course, somewhere beneath all the brilliance of being with his best friend again; a quiet need, tugging hungrily, wanting more and more and more. Sirius does what he can to dismiss it – he excuses himself whenever he thinks that the longing gets too much, he grabs each and every one of his fantasies by the throat and stuffs them away firmly, and he doesn’t even let himself wank to the thought of James when he’s alone at night.

His theory is that if he ignores it long enough, it’s bound to disappear, but he’s quickly learning that the frenzied desire is prone to rearing its head whenever he so much as looks at James; so powerful, sometimes, that it leaves him choked-up and paralysed, floundering like an idiot or letting entire sentences go over his head when James is speaking. It’s humiliating, to say the least, and Sirius is certain that James will catch on before long if he doesn’t keep his dumb feelings in check.

Remus’ advice of don’t spend every single minute of the day with him, then, some space will be healthy for you anyway is obviously useless, because James will notice at once if Sirius starts trying to put some distance between them. He’s not stupid, for fuck’s sake, so Sirius decides eventually that the best thing to do is to leave the matter unresolved for as long as he can.

They’re at Remus’ Christmas party when it happens, an hour before midnight.

The sky outside is chilly and moonless, but Remus’ living room is roaring with warmth. Almost everyone they know must be here, Sirius thinks, he’s never seen quite so many people in Remus’ home before. It must be the war – people are anxious, growing fearful that this Christmas might be their last, desperate to enjoy it one final time. Despite the slight sense of panic hanging around in the air, Remus is an excellent host and manages to keep everyone’s spirits reasonably lifted. There’s music, and laughter, and after several drinks, plenty of dancing.

James is busy acquainting himself with old friends, all of whom have heard of what happened and are happy to regale him with tales and fond memories.

“We used to have Potions together! You once added an extra strip of Wiggentree bark in my cauldron so that the whole thing exploded everywhere – I mean, it was a bloody mess, but it was actually really funny afterwards.”

“I was your old Quidditch captain, do you still play, by any chance? The boys and I meet up on weekends to fly sometimes, you know, whenever we have the time...”

“You’d never say no to having your picture taken back then, I’ve still got some old photographs from Hogwarts. Come over someday and take a look, if you’d like.”

Sirius keeps a safe distance from everyone else, mostly, deciding to hover around the peripheries of the room. He’s not imagining the heat of people’s glances sliding over him, the way they linger for just a moment longer than necessary – it’s obvious that no one has expected him to grace Remus’ Christmas party, let alone to be walking in beside James Potter. The last time most of these people had seen them together, well… Sirius can only hope that they had been too drunk to remember the absolute fucking spectacle he’d made of himself on the night of James’ engagement.

This is what you deserve, he keeps telling himself, don’t you dare complain.

It’s not even that he cares about these people or their sodding opinions, really. He just doesn’t want James to notice the awkward smiles they’re giving him, so he sticks a secure distance away.

“Are you at least trying to have a good time?” Remus murmurs to him at some point, stirring at the punch in a big glass bowl absently. “You’ve been very quiet tonight.”

Sirius shrugs and sips from his glass. “I know what they’re all saying about me, Remus. Sirius Black? Didn’t he ruin James’ engagement party? What’s he doing here?” he doesn’t mean for it to come out sounding so dark and bitter, but he only realizes this once he’s already spoken.

“Oh, stop it, Pads,” Remus sighs. “No one is even talking about that.”

But there’s a slight edge to his voice when he says it, and Sirius looks the other way.

Sirius,” Remus looks at him pointedly, “it wasn’t that bad, you know, everyone knew you were drunk, anyway, and – well, you were upset, weren’t you? About the engagement?”

Upset,” Sirius says softly, shutting his eyes for a moment, “would’ve been an understatement.”

The truth is, he’d been fucking devastated. James had sniffed trouble the moment Sirius stumbled into the party, already drunk out of his wits, and insisted on pulling Sirius into a corner to tell him to get his shit together. And Sirius, stupid and inebriated and fucking hopeful as he’d had the nerve to be, misread the way that James grabbed onto his blazer, like some type of hungry, raving wolf – and when James had violently shoved him off, in front of everyone – Sirius had taken it upon himself to create the biggest havoc possible, shouting and cursing and swearing viciously at James. All the foul black fury that had been festering dirtily inside him since he’d heard the news, all unleashing at once like a hurricane, pouring out in torrents of murderous madness that left Lily white-faced and sobbing – and James; Sirius can still remember James, looking at him with an expression that Sirius had never seen on his face before, scathing enough that it stung physically on Sirius’ skin, so much so that James was almost unrecognizable in his rage…

This, of course, is the incident everyone assumes had flung James over the edge, pushing him to cut Sirius out completely.

The real incident responsible for that, Sirius knows, was much darker, and much uglier.

“Well, you can’t just hide for the rest of your life because of something you did almost two years ago, Padfoot,” Remus is saying quietly.

Sirius bites back on the guilty, tart secrets swimming inside his mouth. Secrets that only three people had ever known: a dead girl, a man with no memory, and another man, brimming with regret.

Remus gives Sirius a gentle push, in the direction of a group of people standing near the fireplace. “Go on, at least go stand with James if you’re nervous, don’t just skulk around the corners.”

“I’m not nervous,” Sirius snaps, and feels compelled to roll his eyes, “and don’t push me, I’ll take your fucking eye out.”

He listens to what Remus tells him anyway, though. James welcomes him heartily into the group, throwing around introductions like Sirius doesn’t already know every one of the people standing in the circle. There’s a twinkle in James’ eyes when he says, “this is Sirius, he’s my best friend,” that makes Sirius feel like he should stand a bit taller and prouder.

Three, four drinks later, the party is melting into merriness, and even Sirius is in a better mood by the time Remus clinks his glass to get everyone’s attention.

“A toast,” he proclaims, smiling around at everyone gathered in the room. “To us. The warriors, the fighters, the resistance! Every one of us here tonight is brave, and good, and kind – these qualities, they’re simple, but more important than ever right now.”

Murmurs of agreement run across the room.

“It hasn’t been easy, we all know that. Many of us have lost more battles than we can count, more loved ones than we can keep track of. But every morning we wake up and we fight again, we fight back, even when we’re outnumbered, even when the odds are piled high up against us. And I don’t have a doubt in my mind, that strength like this – it’s more valuable and precious than whatever He’s got. Strength like this, it’ll carry us through, I’m sure of it, to a victory so bright and goddamn beautiful that it lights up the whole entire world. That – that is the power of being good, the power that we all have within us here.”

A round of applause follows, interspersed with jubilant cheers and whistles.

“So, I just want to say: a very merry Christmas to all of you. You are the reason for hope, for courage and triumph. Let’s celebrate tonight, knowing that we have that much, at least, to be cheerful for! Also, a special thanks to McKinnon today, she’s baked us this lovely Christmas cake – come on, bring it out for everyone to see!” Remus waves happily at a slender girl with long auburn hair, who immediately goes scarlet when the attention is directed towards her.

She scuttles off into the kitchen, then re-emerges a moment later, cradling in her arms a gigantic layered cake, laced with dollops of cream and fresh cherries all the way to the top, finished off with a dancing, sparkling Christmas star at the very peak, made of gold icing sugar.

“She absolutely loved cream cakes,” James murmurs.

“Hm?” Sirius asks distractedly, watching the happy golden star doing its jig in time to the music. “Who?”

“Lily,” James says, and the words fall out casually from his mouth as though they are nothing, “cream cakes were her favourite.”

The glass that Sirius is holding slips from his hand, and smashes suddenly onto the ground.

The shards fly everywhere, sliding outwards from the noisy point of impact. Everyone in the room turns at the sound, and in the dragged-out, piercing silence that follows, Sirius is certain he can hear the acceleration of his own heart.

 “What – “ he croaks, even though the effort of speaking alone is overwhelming, “ – did you just say?”

Redness is blossoming all over James’ face, and he claps a hand over his mouth, eyes growing wide. A thin sheen of sweat has appeared on his forehead, catching little bits of light from the ceiling.

Lily?” the name scrabbles out as a rasp, and Sirius can barely get it past the swelling in his throat. “James, nobody has spoken a word about Lily to you, how did you – ”

But James doesn’t look like he’s even listening. His eyes are clouding over with panic, and he gags and retches into his hand. Sirius becomes aware that James’ body is swaying slowly, like a burning building about to topple, moving one way then the other in a terrible pendulum arc.

The room is still silent, and Sirius just stares.

“He’s not well!” Remus shouts suddenly. He’s already pushing through the crowd, toward James, and manages  to catch him a split second before he collapses. James’ legs give way under him and his eyes roll all the way to the back of his head, until only the whites of them, horrific and empty, are visible.

Someone in the room lets out an ear-splitting scream, and this sets off a sudden commotion in everybody else.

“No, no – it’s nothing, everyone, just – SIRIUS, take him to my room, now,” Remus is yelling. “Everyone – it’s fine, no need to worry, James is obviously a bit unwell, we’ll take care of him!”

Sirius feels Remus pushing James’ body onto him, horrified by the limp weight. No, no, no, is all his stupid brain can think, even though he has no idea what’s going on. He hauls James up, and somehow amidst all the nervous confusion in the room, he manages to half-carry, half-drag him into the corridor, over the carpet, and finally into Remus’ bedroom.

Only when he flops James onto the mattress does he allow himself to panic. James is so pale he looks like he’s dead, and for the shortest moment Sirius’ heart is choking up frantically inside his throat. He presses his hands desperately around James’ neck, holding his breath.

The wave of relief that washes into him when his fingers find that faint throb of a pulse, fluttering lightly under the skin, is so powerful that he feels his knees wilt beneath him, and has to sink onto the ground next to the bed.

“Thank fuck,” he whispers, and doesn’t realize that his eyes are wet until he’s furiously scrubbing at them.

He’s so stunned by what’s just happened that his entire mind feels numb, any and all rational thought blotted out like his brain has been plunged into a massive tub of invisible ink. He doesn’t know what to think, what to make of this – how could James possibly have known about Lily’s favourite cake, and what the fuck had happened to him after he’d said it?

Remus reappears at the door once he’s gotten everyone else to relax, and his face is sallow and anxious. “Is he –“

“He’s unconscious, but he’s breathing.”

“Oh, thank God for that,” Remus exhales, rubbing his hands over his face. “Was it Dark Magic? Do you think someone put a curse on him?”

That doesn’t fit. Sirius shakes his head. “How could they have? I’ve been with him every single day, and we’ve never had any trouble with the wrong types.”

Remus stares at James lying on the bed. He looks broken. “Should we take him to St Mungo’s?”

“He looks like he’s just passed out,” Sirius’ fingers are curling around James’ wrist, just to feel that beautiful, comforting pulse there, serving again and again and again as the sweetest type of reassurance that James is still alive. He uses his free hand to lightly press James’ eyelids closed. “I’m going to stay here with him until he wakes up. Go check on the others.”

Remus’ eyes move from their linked hands to Sirius’ face. “Okay,” he says slowly, his face still stricken, “but – let me know if you need anything, and when he wakes up.”

When Remus leaves the room, Sirius shuffles closer to the bed on his knees. James’ face is milky, his hair matted slightly with sweat, and his skin feels like paper. The new hollowness in his face sets segments of light bouncing off his cheeks, sharper than sword-blades, silver like knives. James looks like a dimmed, candlelit version of himself.

Sirius drops his chin gently onto the space of mattress next to James’ face. He’s so close now that he can feel the gentle chill of breath leaving his mouth, and it suddenly brings a thousand more points of James’ face into focus – finer details he’d once known like the back of his hand, but that had faded; with time, with anger, with distance.

James’ dark eyelashes are heavy and fan outwards, creating a feathery shadow just above the glide of his cheekbone. The eyelids, thin enough that a small cartography of little red capillaries is visible right beneath them, running upwards like a spider-web. He finds himself trying to individually admire every tiny pore in James’ skin, like the miniscule brush strokes of a priceless painting.

Sirius finds him so beautiful that it makes him suck a sharp, stuttering breath in through his mouth.

The noise causes James to stir, and before Sirius has any time to respond, James’ eyelids flit open, and Sirius is staring directly into the raw, bronze eyes of the boy he’s in love with.

A surprised sound, like an alarmed animal, escapes from the back of his throat. Every single vein in his body swells with the unexpected shock, and he can’t move a muscle. James’ face is so close to him right now – so fucking close – and it feels like this one moment has been frozen in time; except that it’s really not, not at all, and the seconds are continually passing by, and neither him nor James have moved an inch.

A shift in the shadows. Another moment slips by. Inside James’ eyes, something slots neatly into place – understanding, clear as day – and suddenly, all at once, the spell is shattered.

Fuck.

Sirius recoils immediately like he’s been bitten. He knows that now is the time to say something; he should ask if James is okay, he should ask what happened, he should do anything other than sit here like a petrified idiot that’s been struck by lightning just because he spent a few moments trapped in his best friend’s gaze. But nothing comes out, because it’s too late.

In those few moments, he knows, he’d been naked – and James had seen everything on his face: the want, the need, the flickers of a flame that burns beyond friendship and yearns, desperately, for so much more.

“James,” the name spills out before he can help it, sounding scratched and bloody, and he doesn’t even know what exactly it is that he’s trying to say. “It’s not what –“ the rest of the sentence abruptly stumbles and falls back down his throat, and he can’t bring himself to say any of it out loud.

It’s not what you think, it’s not what it looks like, it’s not, it’s not, it’s not.

“How – how are you feeling?” is what he pathetically settles for instead, despite the fact that it comes out sounding artificial and like it’s not at all what he wants to actually fucking say.

James’ confused expression betrays him for only the briefest second before he pulls it together. “Um, I’m fine, but I don’t really have any idea what’s just happened to me.”

“You said – well, you said something about Lily, earlier, and it was odd, because we haven’t told you anything about her. You've told us that you didn’t want us to mention her to you, and we haven’t, so how –“

“I know,” James breathes out slowly, lower lip jutting out. “But I just – I remember looking at the cake, when that girl brought it out, and I don’t know, the thought just popped into my head, you know? Out of nowhere. And it felt like, like it was something I just knew, not something I was making up.”

“Popped into your head?” Sirius repeats, certain that some of the colour has splashed off of his face. “What else popped into your head?”

“Nothing,” James shakes his head, his eyes mournful. “It made me feel ill, and everything else happened so fast. One moment I was there, about to be sick, and the next I was waking up here.”

Sirius ignores the way his voice rises a decibel at the end of that sentence. He’s trying to stay collected, but his entire body feels like a flock of birds nervously about to take flight. Every bone in it feels fragile, feels like it’s laying in between James’ teeth and waiting for him to bite down and pulverize it.

“Padfoot, what’s wrong with me?” James’ voice is low and anxious. “That was fucking awful.”

“I don’t think anything’s wrong with you,” Sirius says, forehead creasing.

“So what was all that about?”

Sirius considers it for a moment, and then offers the only explanation he can come up with.

“I think – if it happened right after something about Lily came into your head, it must have something to do with when you were attacked. Those Death Eaters cast some really powerful spells on you – the kind that can take a toll. Maybe your body was just trying to reset itself from it.” 

“Do you think so?” James’ lip is swelling from being bitten for so long, and Sirius can’t stop staring at it. “That’s all it really is?”

“Well, you said you’re feeling fine, so maybe we shouldn’t worry unless it happens again? You were only out for a couple of minutes.”

“Yeah,” James sighs, looking slightly more consoled at that. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”

The silence that sits between them is clumsy and awkward. There’s something different in the way that James is looking at him, and Sirius knows that he sees it, that he’s already making the connection. This day was bound to come, wasn’t it? Sirius hadn’t been able to conceal his stupid feelings well enough – traces of it had been blooming like clues since the very first moment they saw each other again. The way Sirius’ eyes latch onto James and then abruptly pull away, the way Sirius swiftly excuses himself on the nights that James gets too drunk and starts becoming touchy, the furious refusal to allow even a shadow of vulnerability to be seen in him.

James opens his mouth. “Sirius –“

Don’t,” is the only word that Sirius can choke out. His entire chest feels like it’s caved in on itself, all the ribs cutting into his sides.

James looks like he’s at a loss. His eyes are fixed on Sirius’ face. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Pop.

Before he’s realized what he’s doing, Sirius is stumbling forwards, alone, inside the darkness of his own apartment – miles away from James, as if it had been a reflex. His breathing is thick and painful, and he fumbles around for a minute with the lights before collapsing onto the bed.

He knows it was a coward’s move, especially since James’ doesn’t yet have the magical ability to come Apparating after him. What the fuck else was he supposed to do, though? The way James had looked at him, Sirius felt like he’d been standing there with all his bones exposed, protected by neither clothes nor skin.  

It had been fucking terrifying.

He doesn’t know what James is thinking, doesn’t even think he wants to know. It feels incredibly stupid, now that James knows, to ever have wished that he’d been able to tell him how he feels – it’s dangerous and idiotic, a rabbit hole that could go wrong in a thousand different, devastating ways. Sirius may as well strip naked, get down obediently onto his knees, and fucking beg for James; he’ll achieve the exact same outcome of James’ disgusted pity.

You are such a fucking idiot, you’ve fucked everything up, he snarls at himself, suddenly furious.

In his head, he hears a different voice – James, shouting at him from two years ago, the words thundering out and violent with rage, hailing onto Sirius like knives, YOU fucking ruined this, Sirius, don’t you fucking look at me like that, you fucked EVERYTHING up –

Sirius punches his fist so hard into the wall next to the bed that he hears the bones in his fingers cracking sharply, but he can barely even feel the pain flaring out from it.

--

Chapter Text

He awakens, the next day, to the sound of loud, relentless thumps on the door.

Behind the curtains, early grey light is seeping into the bedroom, and in the stillness of morning the pounding from the door seems to be echoing tenfold, cramming itself painfully into his brain. The noise gets louder and faster as he heaves himself up and groggily trudges into the living room, irritated both at having being woken up so prematurely and the fact that he’s hungover despite not having been that drunk last night.

He’s still dressed, and his hand is now emanating a dull ache from being crushed into the wall. “Fucking wait, I’m coming,” he snaps at whoever is currently slamming their fists onto the wood, finally reaching the door and turning the key to open it. The sudden wash of bright, blinding light from outside makes him squint for a moment, and then –

“You fucking –“

Not even a moment later, James has barged into the apartment, nostrils flaring, wand pointed straight at Sirius’ chest.

“What –“

“You left me at Remus’ last night, you fucking prick,” James shouts, fuming. “Just fucking Apparate yourself back home, why don’t you, and leave me to fucking walk!”

Despite the blaze of anger on James’ face, something about the fact that he’s had to walk all the way back from Remus’, like a Muggle, and that he’s pointing a wand at Sirius’ chest when he’s about as threatening as a child, is irresistibly funny.

“What are you laughing at, you dickhead?”

“Nothing,” Sirius says, but he can’t help himself. “No – ow, ow, okay, I’m sorry,” he stops when James jabs him repeatedly in the stomach with his wand. “You’re right – that was selfish of me. I panicked.”

“Clearly,” James is still glaring at him. “You can’t just decide to pop yourself back home and not take me with you. I live here too, you know.”

“Technically, you’re just a houseguest massively overstaying your welcome.”

James pokes his wand hard into Sirius again, this time painfully in between two of his ribs.

“Ow – fuck off, James, stop that,” Sirius snaps, trying to fend James off and rub at his stinging sides at the same time. “You’re a fucking menace, you know that?”

“Hey – what happened to your hand?” James frowns suddenly, lowering his wand.

Sirius immediately stuffs the injured fist out of sight, in the pocket of his robes. “Nothing.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Sirius,” James huffs, irritated again. “Show it to me.”

“No.”

He’s caught off guard when James’ body slams into him, knocking him to the ground with force.

“What the fuck –“

Realizing what’s happening a second too late, he furiously starts kicking, trying to wrestle James off of him. They scramble rabidly for a few minutes, and the only thing he’s aware of are limbs being thrown about and occasionally catching him in the face, until finally James manages to pin him down, arms held out to the sides.

“I’m not in the mood to ask nicely,” James grunts, struggling a bit with the effort of holding Sirius in place. He cranes his neck, trying to get a good view of Sirius’ hand from the awkward position that they’re locked in, then lets out a quiet sound of exclamation. “What did you do, you maniac, all your fucking fingers are broken.”

Involuntarily, Sirius stops trying to shove James off and turns to look at his own hand. He’d taken some sleep potion to knock himself out immediately after punching the wall last night, and hadn’t remembered to check how bad it was until now. The sight makes him groan. His entire hand is swelling, deep yellow and violet bruises smeared over the skin in uneven, sickening patches. All his fingers are bending off at uneven angles from the top knuckles, which had apparently absorbed most of the impact. Looking at it now, he’s vaguely impressed that he’s even managed to ignore it for so long.

“I – punched a wall,” he admits, by means of explanation, seeing that James is still staring at him.

“What, that hard?” James’ mouth drops open in disbelief when Sirius nods. “Why?

Sirius squirms a bit, highly aware that he’s still lying under James. “Get off me, wanker. And I was drunk.”

James doesn’t move. “Was it because of last night?”

“James, I’m serious, get off me,” Sirius’ voice rises, and a fresh wave of humiliation at the scalding memory of last night gives him just enough strength to jam his knee up against James’ stomach.

James yelps in pain and rolls off onto the ground while Sirius pulls himself into a sitting-up position. He spends a minute or so fumbling with his wand, doing whatever he can to fix the damage he’s done to his hand – he’s not great at healing spells, but by the time it’s finished his mangled fingers resemble a normal, albeit slightly sore, hand again. Then he turns to face James.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says firmly.

“Oh, what a surprise. You never want to talk about fucking anything!” James shouts, and the sudden, unfettered accusation in his voice feels like a blow to the gut. “I know what I saw, Sirius, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t see it, just because it makes you uncomfortable to be an actual human being, with feelings, for once in your life!”

His tone is so sharp and fiery that it knocks all the words out of Sirius’ mouth.

“I don’t know what your problem with all this is,” James is continuing , evidently on a rant that he’s been having to subdue for a while now. “I don’t know why you have to act like I’m going to fucking – punish you, or something, for telling me the truth. Did you think I’d stop talking to you? Did you think it would scare me off or change my mind about you? Do you even know me, Sirius? And what kind of best friend are you, anyway, if you’re always fucking hiding things? Who else am I supposed to be able to trust, if not you?”

Sirius feels like his body has turned into broken glass. Everything is aching, tender and wounded.  He can’t bring himself to speak. He doesn’t know what to do, hadn’t at all been ready to be sitting here with James and having his own ugly, screeching pain pointed back out to him.

James is looking at him – and there’s genuine hurt in his eyes, like he’s upset at Sirius for not valuing their friendship as much as he does. And that fucking stings, it does, because he doesn’t even know that Sirius values it so much he would genuinely kill to keep James in his life.

“Why didn’t you just tell me, Pads?”

I’m terrified of losing you again. “I didn’t – I wasn’t sure how you’d take it.”

“What did you think I was going to do?”

Leave me for dead, like you did last time. “I don’t know.”

“If you’d just told me this ages ago, I would’ve –“ James breathes out, shaking his head and pinching at the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know, maybe – maybe it would be different with us.”

Sirius narrows his eyes at him. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about us being more like how you want us to be.”

The look on James’ face is earnest and open, but Sirius becomes aware of the anger starting to froth inside of him. It feels like he’s suddenly shrunken to a tiny fraction of his actual size, and is being crushed in the palm of James’ hand, suffocating with the attempt to escape. Like that’s all he’s been reduced to, a pathetic plaything that James knows he can do with as he pleases.

 “How I want us to be?” he snarls. “And I suppose you know all about what I want, now, do you?”

“What? No, that’s not what I said –“

“Let’s get one thing absolutely clear, James,” Sirius hisses, spitting every word out. “I don’t care what you saw or what you think that I want – don’t you dare try and rub my face in it, I’m not your fucking toy.”

“I didn’t say that you were!” James shouts. “I just said that maybe there’s nothing wrong with being more than friends!”

Excuse me?”

“If you stopped being so fucking paranoid for literally one entire goddamn second, you’d see that I’m not whatever monster you’re stupidly making me out to be, and that maybe I do fucking like you back –”

Sirius knows he must look feral, the fury physically jutting out of his body like dislocated bones, his skin so taut that the blood under it has been drained out into whiteness. “Are you trying to be funny?” the words come out quiet and deadly, vibrating like a fuse about to blow.

No –“

How dare James joke about something like that? How fucking dare he sit there and make a mockery of the one thing that has spread like rot inside Sirius’ body, turning everything it touches into charred, bleeding decay?

“If you ever –“ Sirius’ voice is hostile, venomous, “ – ever, James, and I fucking mean it – try and taunt me about this again, I will rip you to fucking pieces, do you understand me?”

James glares at Sirius, eyes so alight with anger that Sirius can barely stand to look at him. “Fine,” he snaps finally, getting up onto his feet. “Fine, be that way, then. Keep on choosing to assume the most far-fetched, unreasonable bullshit just because you’re paranoid, and ignore what’s right under your fucking nose.”

Sirius blinks, fazed by James’ incensed reaction. He doesn’t know how he’d been expecting James to respond to his threat, but he certainly hadn’t expected that.

“Oh, is it actually my turn to talk now?” James is saying, eyes still blazing. “Can I finally say something without it getting brutalized inside that mess you call your head? Whatever it is that you think, Sirius, I don’t have a single problem with us getting together, but you clearly do. I don’t know where you got this impression that I want to actively humiliate you just for having feelings for me, or why the fuck you refuse to believe a word I actually say – but that’s your issue, not mine. Don’t you fucking project your problems on to me.”

His words fly out like shattered glass shards, leaving cuts where they graze past Sirius’ skin.

“Just because I might fancy you a little bit doesn’t mean I have to let you villainize me before I’ve even done anything wrong, and I’m not going to stand here and baby you through whatever personal crisis it is that you’re obviously going through, either.”

Sirius’ mouth doesn’t open, despite what feels like a meniscus of nausea steadily rising up inside him. James’ words are echoing, blurred but heavy and ringing with conviction, tearing to shreds the violent, vulnerable rage that had filled him with so much certainty only moments ago.

James is striding towards his bedroom, leaving Sirius on the ground.

“Hey –“

“You need to grow up, Sirius,” James tells him, and this time the words sound more like disappointment than anything else. “Not everyone in the world is out to destroy you.”

With that, he slams the door shut, the sound reverberating loudly through the apartment.

Sirius doesn’t move from the floor, because he’s sure that if he tries to pick himself up he’ll just fall apart and his bones and organs will go rolling all around the living room. He’s so aghast that he’s feeling lightheaded, dizzy with the effort of trying to make sense of what James has just left him with.

It’s one thing that James knows how Sirius feels, but a whole other that he reciprocates it in the slightest – even now, even while James’ words replay over and over in his head, it sounds ludicrous, enough to make Sirius want to physically maul anyone who’d dare suggest something so stupid. It’s why he’d snarled at James: the frustration and anger that what he wants is nothing but a hopeless, broken dream is nearly too much to take.  

And, yet…

Is it really that bizarre to hope that James might feel the same for him? Hadn’t he done it once before, at Hogwarts; so naturally, so easily, so willingly? There had been no distinguishable trigger for it – them falling in love had always been an inevitable consequence to being best friends. How can Sirius let himself feel stupid for thinking that it might happen again?

But then again – as fucking breathtaking as the concept is – Sirius feels like he’s standing in the middle of a barren land he’d once planted all his hopes with James in. How do they turn back from there? Is it enough to say I love you, I want you, I need you more than you can understand? Is it enough for James to say I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, let’s go back and try again?

For the year and a half that they’d been apart Sirius had lived inside his own hurricane. He’d never been able to move on, declining when people tried to take him out to meet someone new – the concept of loving anyone else at all was always so foreign. Everyone he met had been a version of James, sometimes knights and sometimes monsters. Everyone had been either too much like James or not enough of him. Despite the months and months of distance with no contact, Sirius had harboured his own petulant, incessant fantasies – failing to override them with logic, with fact, with even the memory of James’ face, crimson with hatred, on the last night that they’d seen each other.

And now, the one and only thing that he had wanted the entire time that he’d been alone – it’s right here, in his home, offering itself to him.

He gets up suddenly, his legs moving so fast that his eyes don’t even catch the movement, and finds himself standing outside of James’ door and knocking on it urgently. No matter what happens, he thinks, an apology is in order at least.

What?”

“Are you going to let me in?” he says.

“No.”

Sirius sighs. It’s only expected. “Alright, well – I just wanted to say that I’m sorry, Prongs. For what I said earlier.”

James lets out a derisive snort that can be heard through the door. “What, do you miss me already?”

“Don’t be a dick, I said I’m sorry.”

“You’re such an entitled bastard,” the door opens with a click, and James is standing there behind it, grinning. “I should be allowed to forgive you on my own terms, don’t rush me.”

Sirius raises his eyebrows. “And what are those?”

“Firstly, leave me alone to take a nap, because instead of sleeping like a regular person I had to spend all night on buses and walking back since you abandoned me at Remus’,” James says.

“Right, well, I’m sorry about that too.”

“And secondly, get me that red-gold Quidditch ball set we saw in Diagon Alley last week.”

“The one that costs three hundred Galleons?”

“Yes,” James says sternly. “And then you’ll be pardoned.”

Sirius rolls his eyes. “Fine, Your Majesty, but we’ll be living off fucking scraps for a month because of it.”

“Again, sounds like a personal issue,” James shrugs. “Now piss off, I was just about to fall asleep when you knocked.”

Sirius decides to let him, feeling considerably lighter than he had before James opened the door. He goes back into his own room, deciding that he should probably get some sleep as well, before a thought occurs to him; one that he’s never properly entertained before.

Now that James has partially admitted to returning a sliver of his feelings, it can’t possibly be all that dangerous to wank to the thought of him, can it? Sirius feels like it’s something that his body has begged for months, a delicious luxury that he vehemently refused to allow himself, in the fear that it might cause his feelings to hurtle out of control and ruin everything.

But right now – right now the words Just because I might fancy you a little bit are holding him hostage, holding him tied down with rope. Why should he keep denying himself this, even if it’s all he’ll ever have? The thought drives him to build all kinds of castles in the air, castles filled with a mirage of both sharp memories and hazy fantasies of James – his skin, his mouth, his cock.

Sirius is achingly hard within moments, and before he can find the resolve to protest, his hand is already under his robes, pumping desperately.   

--

Chapter Text

December dissolves soundlessly away, and the new year enters wearing a coat of silver mist and powdery snow. The air feels frozen, holding its breath, and through it all the war rages on like an endless storm. 

The number of Death Eaters has risen, the ratio now ten to each member of the Order. The Death Eaters have begun conducting brutal raids and executions of anyone they deem to be less than pure wizarding blood. On the streets, Muggle-borns and half-bloods alike seem to be shrinking under their cloaks as they hurry nervously along, trying not to attract any attention to themselves. Shops on Diagon Alley shut hours before the sun has the chance to set on them, and only a few dirty old pubs remain open late on Knockturn Alley. As soon as darkness begins pressing down on the sky, Death Eaters begin prowling around, and the list of obituaries printed every morning in the Prophet grows longer every day.

It’s unsurprising, really, when Remus shows up one day to tell him that the Order needs him again.

“It’s a mess out there,” he sighs, his cup of coffee sitting untouched on the table in front of them. “You must’ve seen in the Prophet – last week they got the McKinnons, the whole family. Slaughtered like pigs, even the children.” 

Discomfort clenches Sirius’ stomach, but he surveys Remus suspiciously. “I thought the Order said they didn’t need me anymore?”

“It’s not that we didn’t need you,” Remus insists, huffing impatiently. “But even you’ve got to admit that you became a little – maniacal, after James left you. You were leaving bloodbaths everywhere you went.”

“I never killed anyone who wasn’t a Death Eater,” Sirius says hotly.

“Yes, but you didn’t just kill them, did you? You left all of them ripped open in the middle with their guts spilling out, and they’d only die hours after you were finished,” Remus reaches for the steaming mug in front of him and curls a hand around it. “It was barbaric, Pads, and that’s not even considering the intelligence you lost us or the Muggle witnesses that we had to take care of.”

Sirius sinks a little bit lower down the back of his chair, a vague flicker of shame slapping the insides of his ribs – not because he’d mindlessly sliced Death Eaters open, but for the fact that it had cost the Order, especially at a time when they’d already lost so much. He’d understood, at least, when an apologetic-looking Vance told him at one of their meetings that Dumbledore had ordered for him to “take a break”. Sirius had managed to agree without putting up much of a fight, though in retrospect he’s not really sure how.

Remus takes a delicate sip from the coffee. “We’re really thinning out right now, Sirius, members of the Order are being targeted - it’s not enough just to be pureblood anymore, look at what happened to James.” 

“Better than what happened to Lily. At least they let him live,” a sickening feeling swells inside Sirius. “She didn’t get even that.”

She hadn’t gotten a funeral either, afterwards. There are too many people dying to be able to honour them all.

“My point is,” Remus’ voice is steady but coloured with a shade of emotion at the mention of Lily, “that we need all hands on deck. And – well, obviously, you’re more stable now, and you’re a really good wizard – we could really use you.” 

“Alright,” Sirius shrugs, agreeing without hesitation. It doesn’t make sense to have to deliberate when this is so obviously the right thing to do. He’s getting tired of sitting around and watching their side lose, anyway. “And James?” 

“He’s got orders to take up office work until he’s strong enough to fight again.”

Sirius’ nose wrinkles slightly at the thought of James, as talented and bold as he is, being confined to a cramped and dull office. “That seems like a waste.” 

“What, compared to the alternative of him sitting here all day and practicing the bat-bogey hex on your sofa?”

"He needs training,” Sirius snaps. 

“I agree, and I’m all for James learning new spells, but we need people we can trust right now and he is clever enough for the job.” 

Sirius sighs. It’s beyond irritating to him that James is being under-utilised despite being one of the best wizards who’s ever been in the Order. 

“Would you rather he gets killed while out on patrol?”

“No, of course not,” Sirius says, glaring at Remus. “Fine, but you know how James is. He’s not going to be happy about this.”

“Not happy that he’s safe indoors instead of being murdered outside?”

“He’s going to hate that he’s missing out on all the action.”

“It’s the best way to protect him until he’s got most of his skills back,” Remus rubs at the back of his neck, then looks up at Sirius in mild concern. “How’s it going, by the way, for the two of you?”

“It’s alright,” Sirius waves a hand dismissively, despite the coils in his abdomen tightening slightly. “Well, I don’t know – he’s been different with me recently.”

“Different how?”

Sirius wants to say he’s been acting more like the way he used to but doesn’t want to ruin it by verbalising the tiny sliver of hope that has been nagging at him for two weeks. James has been, to Sirius’ astonishment, been behaving in a manner that can’t be explained any other way. The fluttery, slightly nervous glances when he thinks Sirius isn’t looking (idiotic, obviously, because Sirius is always looking); the way James bites his lip and stares at Sirius’ mouth for just a second too long; and how he’s growing steadily more determined to impress Sirius with newly-learned spells.

It would be subtle, Sirius thinks, if not for the fact that he’s been insulating this exact same behaviour inside himself for months now. But while Sirius has been trying to be careful about not letting any of his feelings show, it seems that James lacks any amount of this restraint at all.

“Different,” Sirius exhales finally, “as in I think spending too much time around me is messing with his head.”

Remus raises an eyebrow. “Why?”

“It’s like he fancies me,” Sirius says, and he’s surprised by how ridiculous that makes him feel.

“Isn’t that a good thing?”

“No, it isn’t,” Sirius snaps at him, annoyed that Remus doesn’t get it. “Obviously it’s only because he’s spending every second of every bloody day with me, Moony. It’s like that stocking syndrome, or whatever the Muggles call it.”

“Stockholm syndrome, and I think that only applies if you’ve kidnapped him.”

“I might as well have,” Sirius snorts. “He’s so attached to me right now. He won’t go anywhere or meet anyone unless I agree to go with him. It’s like that whole week in third year when he refused to talk to anyone except me.”

“Yeah, I remember him getting detention for a month because all the teachers thought he’d been hexed and then found out that he was just being an idiot,” Remus laughs. “Well, you’ll get some space when you start helping out with the Order. Where is he now, anyway?”

Sirius glances at the closed door to James’ room. “We had a disagreement over who finished the bottle of firewhiskey last night and he’s pretending to sulk about it, but I know that – “ he raises his voice “ – he’s just hiding his hangover because it was clearly him who drank it all.”

He can vaguely hear James throwing a pillow at the door in response.

“Well, I should get going anyway,” Remus rolls his eyes, getting up and dusting at his robes. “Need to go deliver a message to Bones. I’ll send you an owl with your instructions, later – it’ll be coded, just unscramble the letters and then use a mirror to read them.”

Sirius nods and sees Remus to the door.

“And tell James to come off it, everyone knows you’d never be able to finish an entire bottle of firewhiskey on your own,” Remus grins, and then pops away before Sirius can hit him.

 —

Predictably, James puts up a furious fight when he finds out that he’s going to be scouring Death Eater files in an office while Sirius gets to go on patrol duty at Gringotts.

“I’ve learned three years’ worth of spells in three months,” he says loudly, kicking at the pile of books marked COMPLETE next to the wall. “If that’s not evidence that I’m the best fucking wizard you’ve got on your side then I don’t know what is.”

“No one is denying that you’re a talented wizard, Prongs,” Sirius says, exasperated. It feels like this is the twentieth time he’s had to explain this. “But you’re just not ready, okay, what else do you want me to say?”

“I want to fight.”

“And you will, as soon as it’s possible,” Sirius’ jaw is hurting from the effort of clenching it for so long. “But for now you can either help out in whatever way Dumbledore sees fit, or you can stay at home and do nothing. The choice is yours.”

James is scowling at him. In his annoyance a gentle red flush has crept into his face, somehow making the hazel in his eyes look even brighter.

“Look, I know it’s unfair,” Sirius breathes out and glances once again at the de-coded letter Remus has sent them. “But this is not up to me. And if you’ve done three years of spells in three months then it’ll only be another four before you’re ready to fight, anyway.”

The thought is depressing, because Sirius wants to think that in four months the war might start drawing to a close, but the urgency in Remus’ writing makes that seem unlikely.

The first day of their new jobs is uneventful. According to Remus’ letter, him and Emmaline Vance are to be stationed outside the bank - concealed, of course - and notify the Order if they catch sight of any unusual or suspicious activity. Many goblins have joined Voldemort’s cause, Remus had explained, and those who haven’t have mysteriously gone missing. Meanwhile, James is in a hidden office in a quieter part of London, sifting through transcripts of Death Eater confessions, trying to find new leads.

James is already home by the time Sirius returns to the flat that evening, and the sight of him, after just one day apart, is still a pleasant surprise to Sirius – a warm, comforting kind of feeling, like relaxing into a bath after a long and difficult day.

But more than that – it’s the look on James’ face, the way he lights up when he sees him, that really wraps itself like a blanket around Sirius, that look that says I’m so happy to see you, without him having to open his mouth.

“I took the liberty of pouring us drinks in celebration of our first day as useful members to society,” James is grinning, gesturing toward the filled glasses on the table.

“I knew there had to be a good reason I was keeping you around,” Sirius reaches for the glass gratefully and takes a seat next to James. It occurs to him, now that they’re sitting next to each other again, that even if it’s only been a few hours, he’s missed James.

“My first day was fucking boring,” James sighs, before Sirius can even ask. “They’ve got me holed up in some shitty little office, all by myself, going through paperwork. They didn’t even have anyone supervising me on my first day – I thought that maybe they had some other way of watching over me and making sure I did my job, but I took a three-hour lunch break and had a wank right there in my office, and nothing happened.”

Sirius snorts. “With professionalism like that, the other side doesn’t even stand a chance.”

“You’re making me blush, Black,” James bows his head, smiling good-naturedly. “But enough about me, your day was probably much more exciting than mine.”

“Mmm, not really,” Sirius refills his glass, which has gone empty surprisingly quickly. “We spent all day just sort of standing around and not really knowing what to look out for. And all Vance does is talk about her new boyfriend, I got so sick of it I ended up putting a charm over my ears to drown her out.”

James laughs at that, and the sound seems to enter Sirius’ body like mist, turning all his insides into weightlessness. It’s incredible how even now, even after so many years, his ability to elicit that laugh from James makes Sirius’ chest glow with pride. It had been one of the more painful wounds he’d been left with – the thought that he would never be able to make James happy again, the fear of having crossed one too many lines to ever be anything more than an object of seething, white-hot regret for James. And yet, here they are now, sitting together with James smiling at him again –

Fuck,” he says quietly, without meaning to.

He doesn’t think he’ll ever properly get used to this.

“What?”

“Nothing, it’s just – this is nice.” He doesn’t know how else to put it, how else to explain that this simple act of just talking together had seemed to him, just three months ago, like an impossible luxury that was only tangible in his farthest fantasies.

“What, complaining about work? Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying it, because I’ve got a lot to unload about how fucking tedious my job is. The only thing that kept me from driving my wand into my own eye all day was the thought of being able to come home and talk to you about it.”

He says it easily, but the words pin themselves right onto Sirius’ heart and cause a slight stutter. And they stay there, like gleaming badges on his chest, for the next twenty minutes through James’ tirade about how the Order should be ashamed of itself for wasting his godly talent on dull office work – endowing Sirius with the patience to not even mind this long and ultimately pointless rant.

By the time it’s finished, most of the bottle is empty and James’ words start knocking into each other clumsily.

“And that,” he sighs finally, slamming the glass down onto the table, “is why I personally feel that today was the most single most mundane day of my entire life.”

“You’re right, it’s bullshit. They’re idiots for making you do this.”

Thank you,” James says in disbelief, shaking his head. Then he looks at Sirius, and he smiles, the irritation on his face changing so quickly into a look of contentment that Sirius almost doesn’t catch the whole thing. “At least you don’t think I’m completely useless. That’s what matters, anyway.”

“Good, because you’re not useless.”

The alcohol has made the lights in the apartment go blurry, and they seem to soften James’ outlines, so that he looks more like a stained-glass portrait than anything else. Sirius finds that he’s having to exercise a concerted effort not to move closer to him – despite the short distance between them feeling like it’s humming with energy, willing one of them to close it.

There have been many moments like this recently, he notes. Moments that seem lightning-charged and full of potential – usually in the hours after midnight, when they’ve both been sitting together and drinking for a while – moments where the harder husks around him start giving way to a quiet, scrabbling urgency that makes him want to just touch James, especially when he’s so close like this. To be able to run his palms over James’ body, feeling the blood rising under his skin instantly like it’s being bidden by Sirius’ fingers, the way it did before. 

James is leaning forward on the table, with his head cradled onto his arms, one cheek buried within the crook of his elbow. His eyes are heavy-lidded and tired, and Sirius feels like he has to consciously will invisible ropes of restraint around all of his own limbs just to stop himself from reaching out to him. 

“You know what, Pads,” James says after a minute, yawning sleepily and closing his eyes. “I can’t think of why we would’ve stopped talking, but it’s a good thing that we’re okay now. I really don’t have a fucking clue what I’d do without you.” 

--

By the time the second unremarkable week of work rolls around, Sirius starts showing up to the designated spot near the bank with a flask of James’ Muggle rum under his robes, after putting a charm on it so that it can carry a whole bottle at a time. Emmaline Vance frowns at him disapprovingly when she notices him taking swigs every hour, but gives in to the boredom by sunset, and Sirius thinks that she makes much more pleasant company when she’s drunk.

They’re leaning against the wall of the alley across Gringotts, shielded from view by a protective charm. Sirius has been drinking – slowly, because he thinks he should at least be slightly sober in the unlikely event of anything at all happening – since morning, and so has Emmaline.

She appears to be on the gigglier end of tipsy. “Hey – is it true that you’re living with Potter now?”  she asks, after a couple of daring shots from Sirius’ flask.

“Unfortunately for me, yes.”

Unfortunately?” The bright afternoon sun makes her squint as she looks at him.

“Yeah, seeing as how he’s somehow managed to turn my apartment into ten times the wreck it was before.” Sirius doesn’t really mind it, though, because the mess is a reminder that James really, actually does live with him – it’s evidence that this isn’t just some kind of raving, lunatic hallucination he’s conjured up like he would have otherwise believed.

“Oh,” she giggles, then – “well, can I ask you something, then? If you won’t think I’m being rude.”

The warmth of the rum has made Sirius more forgiving of her girlishness than he normally would be, and he shrugs. “Sure.”

“You and Potter, are you...?”

“No,” he says flatly. “We’re not.”

Emmaline blinks at him for a moment, like she’s trying to decide if he’s telling the truth, then lets out a mm noise and glances at the bank. “Oh. It’s just – well, I was at his engagement party, and – “

“That was two years ago,” Sirius narrows his eyes at her, and she wilts immediately. “Things are different now.”

“Right.” Emmaline drops her gaze and reaches for the flask, taking another sip. “Well, even if you are – I said if,” she mutters hastily, at the look on Sirius’ face, “I’d be happy for you, you know.”

Sirius opens his mouth to reply but a flash of movement near the entrance of the bank catches his eye.

“I always did think you were unusually close at school – “

SHHH!” Sirius snaps, elbowing her hard. “Look over there!”

Her head snaps up, and she lets out a short gasp.

A tall, hooded figure is gliding out of the bank, dragging behind him what looks like an absurdly large bag of coins - except that coins inside the bag are alive and moving, creating imprints on the fabric as they do.

“Think that counts as unusual or suspicious activity?”

Emmaline nods slowly. “My money’s on that guy being a Death Eater. What is in that bag?”

The hooded figure suddenly seems to have noticed the bag moving and whips around, flicking his wand at it. Whatever’s been thrashing around inside the bag immediately goes slack, and the man hoists it up again over his shoulder.

Shit,” Emmaline whispers. “What should we do?” 

Sirius is about to suggest she shut up so that he can think, but it’s too late. Within a split second, the man whirls his cloak and disappears. 

There’s a moment of silence as they absorb what has just happened. Then –

“They’re abducting goblins,” he says quietly, staring at the space where the man had stood with his bag moments ago.

Why?” 

“They’re infiltrating Gringotts, obviously,” he snaps, a bit too harshly, at her. “They could do anything once they’ve controlled the bank. They could buy the Prophet and only print pureblood propaganda rubbish, or regulate wages in the Ministry to make anyone do what they want.”

“And they’re getting rid of the goblins that won’t agree,” Emmaline’s face is pale. “But in broad daylight?

“I don’t think he realised the goblin was still awake when he left the bank – if it had been knocked out it he would’ve just looked like someone taking out a large bag of money – Merlin knows our economy’s going to shit, no one would’ve suspected a thing.”

“I think we need to get Aurors stationed inside the bank.”

“We don’t know how many of those goblins are on His side already, we could be sending our best wizards into a trap.”

“What do you think we should do?” Emmaline bites her lip, looking at him as if she expects him to have all the answers.

“Wait, I suppose,” Sirius exhales, because he doesn’t actually know what else to say. “It shouldn’t be long before they take another one – and now at least we know what to look out for.” 

“I can’t believe you saw a goblin abduction,” James says miserably that night, lying on his back on Sirius’ bed and tipping the last few drops of nettlewine from the bottle into his mouth. “I spent all day drawing family trees for Death Eaters.”

“Only the final bits of it, and it wasn’t even that exciting.” Sirius is standing with his back pressed against the windowpane, using the slight discomfort of the edge digging into his back to keep himself distracted from the way that James’ body looks, long and languid, as it’s laid across his bed. “But more importantly, we need more alcohol. You don’t even like nettlewine, you fucker, and you’ve had the whole bottle.”

“Desperate times, desperate measures,” James shrugs, tossing the empty glass bottle aside. It bounces off the carpet without a sound. “You’re the one who’s taking all my rum and drinking it at work, anyway.”

“Only because patrol duty is so fucking riveting.”

“You saw a goblin being kidnapped!” James exclaims. “If anyone should be drinking at work it should be me. At least you have company while standing around all day, and this Emmaline sounds really fit.”

“Oh, she’s a dream,” Sirius says, thinking of how he’d stood a few days ago, awkwardly watching, as she vomited into the pavement after taking one too many gulps from his flask.

James scowls like this isn’t the reaction he’d wanted, then rolls over onto his stomach. “Well, if you’d stop sharing all my rum with her, we’d still have something to drink. Can’t you conjure up some type of alcoholic potion or something?”

“You’ve had two bottles of wine, you drunkard.”

“Sorry, is this coming from someone who’s been drinking my rum for breakfast?”

“Fuck off, I’m not claiming to be a saint of sobriety either,” Sirius rolls his eyes. “And no, I can’t just conjure up something for us to drink, James.”

James lets out a long, sulky sigh, like some type of overgrown child. “What’s the use in magic, if we can’t even do that?”

Sirius is trying to think of something to say back to that, but at the minute he’s finding it extremely difficult. For a moment the only thing he’s aware of is James stretching, his limbs extending outwards gracefully – and Sirius isn’t trying to picture the ripple of muscles under James’ robes that allow for this movement, but it’s in his head anyway, and it floods his whole body with heat. Does James not know what he looks like, lying there like a cat on Sirius’ bed? Does he not realize that every molecule in Sirius’ body feels doused in crumpling need just by looking at him?

“Hey, wanna hear something really weird?” James says, once his eyelids lift open again, smiling. “It’ll take your mind off not having any more alcohol, I promise.”

Sirius nods, albeit a little slowly because that image of James stretching out is still freshly frozen in his mind. “Go on.”

“Well, today after my lunch break I decided to take a nap in my office, and mind you, I’d done about eight family trees by then so technically I deserved one,” he says. “And get this – during my nap, I had a dream about you.”

“A dream?” Sirius repeats, snorting. “What was I doing, flying off into the sunset with you?”

“No, you dickhead. It was like – I mean, I don’t understand it, but I can remember the whole thing really well for some reason. Anyway, I assume we were in Hogwarts, because we were both wearing uniforms, and we were creeping around some type of castle. It was dark, and I don’t think we were meant to be out because I kept laughing about something and you kept hitting me and telling me to shut up before we got caught. For some reason we seemed to be going around to every bathroom, both male and female ones, and dropping this little yellow bar of soap into the each toilet. And every time the soap started bubbling up in the water little tadpoles would jump out of it. Isn’t that just strange?”

He’s looking up at Sirius expectantly, but Sirius suddenly feels like he can’t talk. 

Because he remembers, clear as anything, the time in fifth year when he and James had gone out and purchased boxes full of Frog-Spawn Soap from Hogsmeade. How they’d crept around the castle that same night, dropping one bar of soap into every single toilet, and how they’d collapsed into each other, burning with laughter, at the resulting havoc it caused the next morning – all the students screaming and sprinting out of the bathrooms when the tadpoles clogged the toilets and overflowed onto the ground, flipping around everywhere, and all the teachers irritably trying to calm everyone down and clear up the mess.

James is frowning at his lack of a response. “Hello? Did you not hear what I just said? Tadpoles, in toilets.”

“I heard,” Sirius says, though the words only come out as a whisper. He feels like there’s no longer any floor under his feet, like he’s just hovering there, about to plummet into a bottomless void at any moment.

James tilts his head. “Are you okay?”

Sirius’ knees are quickly losing the ability to hold up his body, and his pulse is skittering wildly.

A dream, James had said. How can it have been a dream, when it so closely resembles something that had actually happened, something James could have no way of knowing about? Sirius knows that he, Remus and Peter all have been filling James in with proud stories about their mischiefs at Hogwarts, but that particular story – it had been one Sirius had never told James about, least of all because it had ended with the both of them celebrating their successful prank by fucking right there in the common room, long after all the other students had gone to bed. The memory is so salient that it digs into Sirius’ body.

“Padfoot,” James looks mildly worried now. “What is it?”

“I don’t think that was just a dream, James,” Sirius’ voice is quiet, shaking slightly. “That – that’s something that we did actually do at Hogwarts. It was one of our pranks.”

James cocks an eyebrow. “What, we actually walked around the school at night and dropped tadpole soap into the toilets?”

“Is that what you’re concerned about right now?” Sirius snaps at him. “Prongs, you’ve just remembered something from before you lost your memory.”

“So? It wasn’t about anything particularly useful,” James shrugs. He seems nowhere as bothered about this as he should be, and it makes Sirius want to physically shake some sense into him. “Why are you so worked up about it, anyway?” 

Sirius wishes they did actually have something to drink, because he fucking needs one right now. Despite seeming fucking impossible, it looks like somehow, jagged bits of memory are returning to James. Odd bits and pieces that, eventually, will reveal parts of what had happened between the two of them. And if today it’s a memory of one of their pranks – tomorrow it could be one of them lying naked together at the edge of the Forest in the dead of night, or worse – James could have a flashback of what had happened to make him cut Sirius out of his life. Just the thought of that happening makes Sirius’ insides writhe with ugly discomfort.

“Sirius?" 

Sirius blinks, and he’s suddenly aware that James has moved, and is now standing right in front of him.

“You’re shaking,” James says softly, and he’s so close that Sirius can feel their robes touching. “What’s wrong?”

Sirius shakes his head, but nothing comes out. All his words have dissolved away, and now that James is right here in front of him, the prospect of him remembering the truth and ripping himself away from Sirius again is glaring him right in the face.

Sirius needs James so much it feels like he’s folded up parts of himself and stuffed them into James to carry around with him for the rest of his life. And how could he possibly have been so blind to think that this blissful ignorance would last forever, that he could really just have James again without the hideous past rearing its unforgiving, brutally accusatory head and ruining everything? It’s been too good, it’s been too fucking good between them again, and Sirius must’ve known this could never last. He doesn’t even fucking deserve for it to, because what he did two years ago had been reckless, and dangerous, and selfish – and James had hated him for it. James had truly, absolutely fucking despised Sirius, for being so in love that it had driven him to madness. 

And now – this perfect, peaceful reality where James doesn’t remember any of that, where he’s smiling at Sirius because he doesn’t know why he’d hated him – it’s starting to fracture, the way all falsehoods eventually do. It’s starting to crack and crumble – and Sirius knows without a doubt that before long the entire ugly, terrible truth will reveal itself.

And just like that – Sirius is going to lose him, all over again.

How can he have been so stupid, how can he ever have taken for granted even one single moment with James? How can he have wasted all this time not making the absolute most of each and every minute that he gets to have James back with him for?

Sirius – ?“ 

A sharp, breathless noise cuts off the rest of his sentence without warning, and then Sirius is kissing him, so suddenly that it fucking hurts, so fiercely that it surges through his whole body like a raging wildfire, spilling out into every single vein. James’ mouth is slack in shock for a moment but he’s quickly kissing him back – hungry and restless, pushing back into Sirius ardently. His hands fist up in Sirius’ robes, tugging him closer, and it’s so desperately good that Sirius can’t feel a single fucking limb in his entire body, can’t feel anything other than this powerful, overwhelming want climbing over him.

He doesn’t know how it took him this long to do it, because right now James’ mouth is heated and frantic and eager against his own, and Sirius can’t imagine ever doing anything other than this, can’t believe he’s spent so long trying to convince himself he could ever live without this – James is making short, choked noises, moaning into Sirius’ mouth, and it’s so fucking hot that Sirius feels like he’s close to gasping with the effort of not instantly coming.

And then James makes a startled sound and suddenly pulls back – a moment too soon – and he's staring at Sirius in flushed bewilderment.

“We’ve done this before,” his eyes are wide, several layers of understanding disentangled in his voice. “You and me."

Sirius doesn’t feel like he can breathe, let alone fucking speak. His cock is so hard that it’s throbbing, and every spare inch of space under his skin seems to be afire, blazing with urgent heat, his body still reeling.

“I just had – the weirdest feeling, like this has happened before, like it’s not the first time,” James is saying softly, looking at Sirius with a blend of awe and wariness at the same time. “Because it has, hasn’t it?”

Sirius nods slowly, like he’s in a trance, unable to verbally produce any words.

There's a muted, swollen silence. Sirius doesn't know how long it goes on for, but it feels like forever. 

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Padfoot,” James says, shaking his head and taking a step closer. “You should’ve just fucking told me, it would’ve saved us so much time.”

And then, before Sirius can even begin to process those words, James leans forward and starts kissing him again.

--

Chapter Text

The shock of it washes into Sirius like a current, but his body responds to James without any conscious control – his heart is slamming so hard against his ribs that he’s certain it’ll tear right through his chest, and he thinks he might actually die from the serotonin overdose. James’ lips are so fucking relentless and demanding, bruising Sirius’ mouth with the force that he’s driving into him with.

He thinks he’d be moaning, if he could, but no sound escapes the strangled silence caught in his throat. James’ fingers have fastened around the back of his neck, digging into the skin, a marked pressure that Sirius can feel in tremors all the way down his spine. His breathing has turned raw and ragged, and no amount of air that he’s trying to draw into his lungs feels quite like enough. He’s so fucking dazed that he can’t process a single thing in his brain except I love you, I love you, I fucking love you, and they don’t even feel like words, they’re shrouded in so much maddening delirium that they feel primal, as if they exist in a language that only James’ skin can understand.

James whines, a low and needy noise, pressing so roughly into Sirius that his lower lip gets caught under Sirius’ teeth, and Sirius can feel the reflexive jerk of James’ body before he sees it when he sinks his teeth down into the soft flesh.

Fuck,” James breathes, and the word is just a wet, hot push of air against Sirius’ mouth, but it feels knifelike, fevered with want.

Sirius keeps trying to snap himself out of whatever frenzied dream his brain keeps rationalizing this out to be – but the sharp tug with every sound that James makes keeps him grounded, pinning him down with the knowledge that he’s really here, he’s really kissing James Potter again.

There is literally no way he could possibly be imagining this, because even the most lucid and desperate chimeras he’s ever fashioned from his dreams are a cheap and watery imitation of what it actually feels like. Like every single one of his ribs has come alive, buzzing with colour inside him, every cell suffused with a hazy, hypnagogic heat. 

And, yet –

Don’t you fucking dare touch me, Sirius, or I swear to God I’ll kill you.

The echo blasts suddenly through his head, swift as a bullet, and Sirius goes still.

You are a fucking psychopath, and you’ve ruined it, you’ve ruined everything. 

The memory collects inside his head in a flood of red – Sirius had been crying, so loud that it was almost a scream, and James had just stood there and looked at him like he was a fucking stranger.

“Sirius?”

He flinches when James’ hand touches his face. “No, don’t – don’t do that.”

The look on James’ face when he pulls away makes his lungs feel like all the air has been punched out of them. “What’s wrong?”

Sirius’ chest feels like a damaged holding cell for all the wounded, dirty words that his mouth can’t translate. He can’t even tell if it’s guilt or anger that’s tumbling about through his bloodstream, infecting everything in its path with livid, messy pain.

James is staring at him, bewildered, but all Sirius can see is a ghost of him from two years ago – recoiling at the insanity he had found, feral and frothing, in Sirius’ eyes. Almost like he would’ve been frightened of Sirius that night, if he hadn’t been distinctly bleeding with rage. James had been so angry he could have broken every bone in Sirius’ body with the sheer force of his fury alone.

Sirius wishes he had.

He wishes James had done anything other than just leaving him there, saying I never want to see you again.

How can Sirius forget that feeling – being cast aside by the only person who’d ever mattered to him, left there to scream and splutter and sob so hard it had racked through his whole skeleton, the filthy bitterness seeping out of him like insects crawling from his skin?

“Look, is it something I did?” James is glaring at him, the beginnings of an indignant scowl forming around his mouth.

The lamplight has clothed the room with a creamy tinge, the colour of a yellow moon. It sweeps onto James and makes everything about him – every ridge, every curve, every space and hollow – look delicate and lambent. He’s so handsome that it’s fucking absurd, and Sirius can barely even look at him without it hurting. The sharp awareness of it is like a current under his skin. “No, you didn’t do anything.”

 “Why’d you just shove me off like that, then? I thought you wanted to kiss me.”

Sirius shakes his head, biting down on the coppery taste that’s erupted inside his mouth. “I do, James, but – maybe we shouldn’t.”

James is studying him, eyes narrowed. “Why not?”

Sirius looks away. When he speaks his voice comes out dripping with shame. “I don’t think, after we stopped talking, that you would have ever wanted me to kiss you again.”

James raises his eyebrows. “You are fucking kidding me.”

“Why the fuck would I be kidding?”

“Because,” James lets out an exasperated huff, “I don’t give a shit about what I wanted after we stopped talking, okay?”

“Well, I do.”

“Oh, I see.” There’s a stubborn heat plastered against James’ eyes, making them shine with defiance. “Okay, then. If we’re going by what I would’ve wanted before I forgot everything,” he says before Sirius can open his mouth again, “I might as well pack up all my shit and go live somewhere else – and not even bother to tell you where it is, seeing as how I didn’t think it was fucking necessary to last time!”

Sirius’ fist curls, but he ignores the anger swimming through his fingers. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Oh, isn’t it?” James snaps. “I cut you off, didn’t I? And it must’ve been for a completely valid reason as well. Wasn’t it?”

The words lash down like they’re being flung at him with a whip. Opening up gashes on his skin and summoning rage through his body. “You –“

“I can do it again, you know,” James is continuing, all his words jagged and sharp. “If what you want so badly is to go back to the way everything was before I lost my memory then I will do exactly as you fucking wish.”

Shit.

It knocks the snarl out of Sirius’ mouth– the fact that James sounds like he’s actually serious.

“Is that what you want, Pads? Because I’ll do it, you know I will.”

“Are you being obtuse on purpose?” Sirius demands loudly, irritated. “That’s obviously not what I want.”

“Then listen to me. Fuck whatever’s happened before, okay? I honestly, truly don’t care anymore.”

“But –“

“I don’t care,” James repeats, and gives Sirius’ wrist a sharp tug, shutting him up. “And I’ll stop asking questions if you stop letting it always get in the way of things. Can’t we just – can’t we do that?”

He makes it sound so easy, so tempting. Like Sirius can just flick his wand and have all these tender, ugly scars in his memory smoothed out into oblivion. Start pretending to show the same lackadaisical indifference that James gets to enjoy.

Does he even deserve that?

“Padfoot. Just say yes.”

“Yeah,” he exhales, quietly realizing that no, he doesn’t deserve it. He never will deserve it, because there’s no way to take back what he did and Lily is dead now. “Okay, James. Whatever you want.”

--

“What, no rum today?” is how Emmaline greets him when Sirius shows up ten minutes late to their designated spot across Gringotts the next morning.

“Morning to you too,” he says, sidling up beside her and leaning himself against the wall. “And no – we’re all finished, unfortunately.”

His body is aching all over. James had fallen asleep on his bed last night and Sirius could bring himself to neither sleep on the bed with him nor leave the room to take James’ bed instead. Eventually he’d settled for the floor, conjuring up a few extra blankets to make it more bearable, and listening to James’ quiet breathing had been so hypnotic that he was out within minutes.

“Pity,” Emmaline sighs. “Well, if we’re lucky today we might catch another abduction. We should probably have a plan, though, for when it happens.”

“You get the goblin, and I’ll take care of the Death Eater,” Sirius says. “Simple.”

Emmaline glances at him uncertainly. “By ‘take care of’, you don’t mean…”

“I’m not going to kill him, obviously,” Sirius rolls his eyes. “I do remember why I got kicked off last time, you know. I’m just going to make sure he’s sufficiently incapacitated for us to take him in for questioning.”

Emmaline nods, then bites her lip. “Did you hear, about the Prewetts?”

“No, has something happened to them?”

“They were found dead under the Dark Mark last night,” she says quietly.

Both of them?”

“Took five Death Eaters to do it, apparently.”

Sirius lets out a low, shuddering breath. The McKinnons, the Prewetts, Lily… with every new member of the Order dropping dead it gets harder and harder to wrap his head around the thought of it, to fully grasp that this is it, and they’re gone. It’s like a kick to the stomach – sharp, sudden, nauseating – a reminder that this is the foul, terrible reality of the war they’re caught in. That people are dying, good people, fighting against a megalomaniac who’s ravaging the world with his hateful crimes.

“Don’t you ever worry, Sirius,” Emmaline’s voice is small, trembling slightly, “that next time it’ll be one of us?”

“Well, what’s the point in worrying?” he says, blinking away the garish morning light from his eyes. “All it does is make us more afraid of doing the right thing.”

“Yeah,” she sighs, though she sounds unconvinced. “You’re right.”

The rest of the morning crumbles away uneventfully, as they stand and watch for something to happen. Sustaining small talk with Emmaline proves to be nearly unbearable now that he’s sober, so they wait in silence instead.

Without anything more than the usual, dull crowd of people walking in and out of Gringotts to take up his attention, Sirius finds his thoughts returning constantly to James, to the conversation they’d had last night, to the fact that James had touched him and kissed him and that it had been fucking mesmeric.

He should feel like it’s selfish, for him to have enjoyed it so much despite knowing that this never would have happened if James hadn’t lost his memory. To know that James had made it so clear, so absolutely crystal fucking clear, that he would never ever be with Sirius again – and for Sirius to let it happen, shamelessly, almost like a part of him wants to say I knew you’d never fucking leave me, I knew you’d come back eventually.

If anything, trying to pretend that this isn’t what he wants or that it isn’t what they should be doing is just a stupid and pointless way of prolonging the inevitable. The truth is that if he’d been given the choice just a day ago he might have resisted, might have been able to say no. But all it had taken was for him to feel the press of James’ mouth on his own just once to know that he’s never going to forget how much he wants it, how desperately and senselessly he needs James.

Like an addiction.

Like he could split himself open and every wound left on his body would be shaped like James.

Sirius.”

He looks up at the sound of Emmaline’s hushed voice, meaning to say what but he sees it before she can reply.

The same tall, hooded figure, carrying a similarly large bag. Now that the bag is still and unmoving, it’s understandable how it hadn’t looked suspicious before – it just looks like a big cash withdrawal, and no one around the figure even bats an eye.

 “We need to move closer,” he says to Emmaline. “But be quiet.”

“Here,” she says, handing him a hat to wear, which drops so low over his head that it partially hides his face. “In case he knows what you look like.”

Together, they step smoothly out from beneath the concealment charm.

“Walk normally,” he tells her, “we don’t want him noticing and running off again.”

It’s easy to blend with the usual afternoon crowd that’s crossing the street. The hooded man seems to be trying to seem nonchalant too, in no hurry as he takes confident, calm steps down from the entrance of the bank.

“Remember, you take the goblin,” he says, and she nods.

They stop walking a few steps to the side of the man, who’s continuing to walk down the stairs.

“Wands out,” she whispers. “And on the count of three.”

Slowly, they raise their wands together, and Sirius murmurs, “petrificus totalus” at the same time that Emmaline says, “accio goblin!”

The two events happen simultaneously; the hooded man goes stiff and collapses onto the ground, and the large bag he was carrying slides swiftly and stops at Emmaline’s feet.

“Okay,” she breathes out, staring at the bag uncertainly. “Uh, now what?”

“38 Southlands Road,” he says, without thinking. “We can question them there.”

Emmaline grabs onto the bag. “Quickly,” she says, glancing around at the people that have stopped walking to stare at the spectacle. “Let’s go.”

Sirius grabs the immobilized figure by the back of the robes and screws his eyes shut.

Pop.

They both appear in the garden of the house at the same time, holding on to their respective packages.

Emmaline tumbles forward with the weight of the bag. Cursing under her breath, she dusts herself off and looks around. “Where are we?”

Sirius glances at the small house in front of them. He’s never been here before, but he knows that it’s empty inside. A vague flicker of sadness stings inside him, but he crams it away.

“James’ and Lily’s old house,” he says.

Emmaline’s eyes widen, and she turns to stare at him. “Is this where… where they –“

“Yeah,” he exhales quietly.

He doesn’t know why this was the first place that came to mind. He’s only been told this address once before, by Remus sometime in the last couple of months in passing conversation, and he can’t think of why it’s even stuck in his memory at all, or how it had surfaced so effortlessly.

This is the place James had moved to after they stopped talking and felt that Sirius wasn’t deserving of an invitation to come see. Where James had lived for a year and a half, with a life that Sirius was not allowed into.

This is where Lily had been killed, where everything had changed over the course of a single night.

“Come on, no point standing around,” he says, biting down on the sickening taste flooding up his throat.

They haul the goblin and the man into the house, through the hallway and into the dining room. Abandoning the frozen goblin in the bag, Emmaline helps Sirius prop the man onto one of the chairs, and then Sirius conjures a few metres of thick rope, waving his wand so that they wrap securely around the man and hold him in place.

“Get his wand,” he tells Emmaline.

While she digs around his robes, Sirius removes the man’s hood and pushes up one of his long black sleeves, revealing the Dark Mark branded onto the skin.

“Death Eater,” she bites her lip.

“A fucking ugly one at that,” Sirius says, scowling at the brute face that’s frozen in front of him.

Emmaline extracts the Death Eater’s wand and snaps it easily in two, incinerating the remaining pieces with a hard, cold expression that Sirius finds unusual on her normally agreeable face. He finds himself liking her a little bit more.

“We don’t know anything about that goblin so I’d tie him up too,” she says after a moment.

Sirius agrees, and does this while Emmaline conjures a Patronus to carry the message to both Remus and Moody. When they’re both finished, they turn to the tied-up hostages in front of them.

“Start with the goblin?” Emmaline suggests.

Sirius nods and performs the counter-curse on the goblin.

No sooner has the spell hit than its mouth is open, streaming a long, dirty list of vulgarities. “ – loathsome, traitorous thief, honourless criminal, disgrace –“

“Hey, you speak when I tell you to speak,” Sirius snaps, pointing his wand at the goblin.

“I will never agree to this heinous crime, this foul robbery –“

“I said shut up,” Sirius jabs his wand sharply into the space between the goblin’s eyes, and it lets out a loud cry of pain. “We’re not trying to steal from the bank, stupid, we’ve obviously just fucking rescued you.”

The goblin glares at him. “Is that why I am tied up like an animal? I was warned, I was told you’d torture me to try and get access to the riches I protect, but I will never –“

“Do we look like Death Eaters to you?” Emmaline spits.

“All thieves are the same, all hideous from the greed in their hearts,” the goblin says coldly.

Emmaline points disgustedly at the immobilised figure sitting on the chair next to the goblin. “He’s the one who was going to capture and torture you. We just want to ask some questions. You’re only tied up because we don’t know anything about you.”

The goblin glances at the Death Eater and immediately makes an ugly face. “Thief! Scoundrel, pathetic bandit! Repulsive plunderer –“

“Yes, yes, we get it,” Sirius interrupts irritably. “Why was he trying to capture you?”

“He asked for us to empty out the contents of several vaults for him – expensive, priceless contents. Spoils of war, he said – disgusting! I know many other goblins have given over, but I refused. I refused! I have spent my life guarding those vaults and no wizard, Dark or otherwise, will retrieve their contents unless I say so!”

“How much of the bank have they infiltrated?”

The goblin glances down, shame sliding into its features. “It is my deepest regret that we could not guard Gringotts like we did before.”

“Do you know where they keep the abducted goblins? Or what they’re planning to do once they’ve taken over?”

“I don’t know anything,” it says grievously. “None of us do.”

“Don’t fucking lie to me.”

“I don’t think he’s lying, Sirius,” Emmaline glances at him. “How could he possibly know what they want? It’s the Death Eater we have to talk to.”

Sirius looks between her and the goblin, then lets out a frustrated breath, realizing she’s right. “Alright. I’m going to try and get him to talk. You,” he says to the goblin, “just sit and be quiet until we figure out what to do with you.”

“Aren’t we waiting for Lupin and Moody?” Emmaline says uncertainly.

“No,” Sirius says shortly, narrowing his eyes at the Death Eater.

“Sirius, just…” Emmaline clears her throat, lowering her voice so only Sirius can hear her. “Just remember we need him alive until they get here.”

“I know that.”

“Okay,” she nods. “Let’s do this.”

Sirius raises his wand and releases the Death Eater from the body bind. He eases smoothly back into motion, rolling his neck around and smiling lazily up at the two of them.

“It really gives you a cramp, being cursed like that out of nowhere,” he says. He sounds exactly like he looks, Sirius thinks – ugly and slimy. “Any chance you could get me a pillow?”

“You’re lucky I haven’t ripped your throat out.”

“Ooh,” the Death Eater flashes him a nasty, maniacal grin. “Kinky, I like that. What’s your name, handsome?”

Emmaline grabs Sirius’ arm before he can throw a punch. “He’s just trying to piss you off, don’t give him what he wants.”

“Yeah, listen to your girlfriend,” the Death Eater says, tilting his head to the side. “She looks smarter than you. Nowhere near as pretty, though.”

Emmaline’s face reddens and she loosens her grip on Sirius’ arm. “Just because we need you alive doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to inflict pain on you,” she snarls at him. “Don’t push it.”

“With tits like that you can do anything you want with me, baby,” he bares his teeth at her.

Emmaline’s face screws up in anger, and she slaps the Death Eater hard across the face. His neck snaps to the side from the force of it, but he turns back up laughing gleefully.

“What do you want with Gringotts?” Sirius asks coldly. “Where are you taking the goblins?”

“Bite me.”

“On Merlin I will pluck your eyeballs out of your head and make you eat them if you don’t answer me.”

The Death Eater laughs again. “Won’t you at least take me to dinner first?”

Crucio!”

“Sirius!” Emmaline shouts, as the Death Eater’s grin suddenly warps into a blood-curling, raw-throated scream. She stares at his writhing body in horror, hands over her mouth. “Sirius, stop!”

Sirius pretends not to hear her.

The Death Eater’s face is white, eyes cramped shut in agony. Sirius wills the curse through every limb in his body – and that’s the thing about the Cruciatus, it’s fuelled by anger, by rage and hatred. No lovely, innocent-hearted person would be able to use it to inflict anything more than a few stinging pricks; but Sirius has had this feeling sitting inside him for two years, and he uses it now, uses it to drive the pain as viciously as he can into the Death Eater.

Sirius!”

He only stops when he sees the Death Eater’s eyes rolled upwards back into his head, his mouth bloody from biting into his tongue. “There’s plenty more where that came from.”

“Right,” Emmaline glances nervously at Sirius and then back at the Death Eater. “Let’s start with your name, then.”

“Maltby,” he croaks. “Arnus Maltby.”

“Where have you been taking the goblins?”

Arnus spits out blood, making an ugly face at her. “It’ll take more than a torture curse to make me betray the Dark Lord, you bitch.”

“You sure about that?” Sirius steps forward.

“Oh, Sirius, don’t,” Emmaline says softly. “He’s just going to let you torture him until he passes out, and then he won’t be of any use to us.”

Sirius finds himself enjoying that idea anyway, but before he can say anything the door behind them bursts open, spraying rubble across the room.

“Sorry we’re late to the party,” Alastor Moody says grimly as he walks into the house beside Remus. They’re both dressed in long black cloaks, swishing against the dust lying on the floor. “What do we have here?”

Emmaline puts the Death Eater into another body bind, then turns to face them. “Arnus Maltby. He’s not a big talker.”

“Why is he bleeding?” Remus raises his eyebrows, and Sirius knows he’s not addressing anyone else in the room. “Did you hit him?”

“He bit his tongue. He was under the Cruciatus.”

“Oh, for –“ Remus inhales sharply, then lets out a long breath. “Sirius, you know that we shouldn’t –“

“Had him here for ten minutes and you’ve tortured him already?” Moody says, disgruntled. “Bit uncreative, aren’t you?”

“What, did you want me to stick knives into him like a Muggle?” Sirius snaps. “I did what I had to.”

You clearly haven’t changed at all,” Moody glares at him. “I should’ve known you’d compromise us again –“

“Sirius, come with me please,” Remus clears his throat loudly, eyes flicking between them. “Alastor, you’re the best at interrogation. Get started without us. Pads, come on.”

Anger still spiking deep into his belly, Sirius throws Moody a dirty look and follows Remus into the next room. “Is he being fucking serious?” he demands, once they’re alone. “I tortured him for two minutes.”

“I know,” Remus sighs. “He’s just – look, we’ve all been under a lot of pressure with the Prewetts gone, he’s still upset about the Death Eaters that you killed last –“

“It’s been two years!” Sirius shouts. “I wasn’t going to fucking kill him, alright? I know what I’m doing.”

“I’m certain you do, Pads, but that’s not what I want to talk about,” Remus says, looking at him with lowered lids. “We’re in James’ and Lily’s old house.”

“So?”

Remus blinks at him. “Why did you bring them here?”

“It was the first place that popped into my head, why does that matter?”

“Look, are you sure that you’re okay?” Remus says. “You don’t have to lie to me. You know that.”

“I’m fine,” Sirius says, a little too harshly. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Remus shakes his head like he’s disappointed. “Alright. Whatever you say. Just – I think we’re going to be here all night, by the looks of things. Just try to keep your cool, okay?”

“All night? What about James?”

“What about him?”

“Well, he’s not going to just sit at home all night if I don’t show up, is he? He’ll go out looking for me.”

“James is an adult,” Remus says. “I’m sure he can be left unattended for one night.”

“No, he can’t,” Sirius scowls. He doesn’t want to say that he’s not even that concerned about James leaving the flat, he just wants to talk to him. “I need to let him know.”

Remus gazes at him for a long moment, then shrugs. “Okay. You can use Floo powder to talk to him, I’m sure there’s some left near the fireplace there. Make it quick, though. We have work to do, okay?”

Sirius nods and Remus leaves him to it. It doesn’t take long to find the Floo powder and toss a handful of it into the empty fireplace, where the green flames rise up almost immediately. Sirius shuts his eyes and stick his head right into the centre of the heat, announcing the address.

It’s only a moment or two until his head pops into his own flat. He notices with pleasure that James is already sitting at the table they catch up at every evening, restocked with a brand new bottle of firewhiskey and two glasses in front of him. James glances up in surprise when the flames come to life in the fireplace, and then he’s staring unsurely right at Sirius.

Padfoot? What are you doing there?”

“Floo powder, I’ve only got a few minutes. Listen, I’ve –“

“Floo powder? What’s that? Are you really here?” James gets up and walks over, kneeling down in front of the fireplace. He reaches out, then starts rapping Sirius on the top of his head with his knuckles.

Ow – yes, I’m really here, you bellend, but it’s just my head,” Sirius tries to dodge, but his fireplace is small and there isn’t really much space to avoid James’ hand. “Stop – James, it’s just a way to communicate, I can’t talk for long.”

“Where are you? This is bizarre,” James is grinning, the light glinting off his glasses. “Where’s the rest of your body? D’you think I’d be able to pull you out of there?”

The smile on his face softens the frustration bubbling inside Sirius’ stomach. He feels himself relaxing a bit, taking the time to just look at James, to allow the warmth at the sight of him to diffuse slowly through his body.

James’ mouth lifts up a little more when he sees Sirius staring. “What?”

“Nothing,” Sirius says, but he’s smiling, realising how much he’s wanted to see him all day. “Hi.”

Interrogating the Death Eater or finding out about Gringotts doesn’t seem nearly as urgent anymore, now that he’s here talking to James.

“Hi, you weirdo,” James laughs, and it’s so beautiful Sirius feels his chest squeeze. “Would you like me to get you a drink? Can you even drink from this thing?”

“I can drink, but I don’t really think I’ve got time –“ he sighs and cuts himself off when he sees that James is already up and going back to the table to pour two glasses. “James, honestly –“

“Sirius, honestly,” James mocks, walking back over and setting the glasses down. “Do I have to pour it into your mouth for you?”

“Well, I’ve got no hands, have I?”

James starts laughing again and the way the sound flares through Sirius’ body is so quick, so startling pleasant. “Alright, say ahhh.”

Sirius does, and James gently tips the firewhiskey into his mouth. James’ eyes stay locked onto his the entire time, the bright brown burning at him beneath dark lashes. Despite the alcohol pouring down his throat, Sirius realizes he’s never felt more present, more solid, than when James looks at him like that.

“You’ve got a dribble – here,” James smiles, and lightly wipes a thumb over Sirius’ mouth, the rest of his hand cupping his chin.

Sirius doesn’t even feel like he can speak. All he wants to do is climb out of the fireplace and right onto James.

James’ thumb lingers for a few moments on Sirius’ mouth, pressing down on his lower lip, and he’s still staring at Sirius like he’s mesmerised.

“Prongs,” Sirius says quietly, and James blinks, abruptly pulling his hand back.

“Sorry,” he grins, picking up his own glass and swallowing it all in one gulp. “So what’s all this? Where are you, anyway?”

“Uh, I’m at your house,” Sirius says. “Your old house.”

“Oh,” James tilts his head to the side, confused. “What are you doing there?”

“We, uh,” Sirius tries to choose his words carefully, to make them sound as unexciting as possible, “we stopped a Death Eater while he was trying to take a goblin, and –“

“You what?” James yells. “Another goblin abduction? And you caught them?”

“Well, yeah, and we’ve brought them to your old house for questioning,” Sirius says. “I just wanted to tell you that we’re probably going to be here all night, so don’t – don’t wait up for me.”

“I’m not waiting up for you, are you completely fucking mental?”

Sirius opens his mouth, unsure of what to say.

“Pads, I swear to God, if you don’t Apparate yourself over here right now and take me there with you, I will literally –“

“No,” Sirius snaps. “Don’t be an idiot. I can’t bring you here, it’s too dangerous.”

“Of course you can! I’m done with work for today anyway, what’s the problem?”

“It’s a Death Eater, James, don’t be daft.”

James is wringing his hands, worked up onto his feet in his excitement. “I’m not sitting this one out, Pads! Come back right now and bring me with you.”

“No, Remus will skin me alive –“

Remus is there too?” James exclaims.

“Remus is a trained member of the Order,” Sirius points out, “and you are not.”

“Oh, fuck off, I know how to take care of myself,” James says hotly. “Sirius, if you don’t let me come along –“

Ouch, wait, something just poked me in the back,” Sirius grunts, “give me a moment.”

“IF YOU’RE NOT BACK HERE IN FIVE MINUTES I’M COMING OUT TO FIND YOU -”

Sirius pulls his head back, re-emerging onto the rest of his body in James’ old house. “What?” he asks irritably, when he sees that it was Remus who poked him. “I was talking to James.”

“What was taking so long? I thought you were just telling him you’re not going to be home tonight.”

“I tried,” Sirius shrugs, “he’s not having it. He wants me to bring him too.”

“What, is he insane? There is a Death Eater in this house.”

“That’s what I said, but he won’t listen, and I know James – he won’t give up without a fight.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Remus groans, rubbing at his eyelids. “Look, we don’t have time, okay? Just go and get him.”

“You want me to bring him here?”

“It’s James, he’ll be able to look after himself, and there’s four members of the Order here anyway. He’ll be fine. Just hurry up and get him. Go! And don’t waste any more time!”

Pop.

He lands in front of his apartment, and he only gets two seconds to fumble with the lock before the door swings open and James is standing right in front of him, already cloaked-up and ready to go.

“You came! I knew you would!” he says happily, throwing his arms around Sirius.

“Hey, hey,” Sirius stumbles back slightly with the weight, but his entire body explodes into a flurry of blazing warmth. “Yeah, ‘course I came.”

James steps forward, even closer, so that their noses are almost touching. “Hey,” he says softly, and Sirius can feel the air leaving his mouth as he speaks. “I know that there’s a goblin abduction, and a Death Eater, and that we don’t have much time. But I just wanted to say that –“

“James,” Sirius interrupts, flushing, because he already knows where this is going.

“No, listen to me,” James says. “I just want to let you know I meant what I said yesterday, okay? About forgetting whatever’s happened with us before. I just want to focus on what we can do now. And when I say I want to do everything with you, I mean literally everything – no matter what it is. Because you’re my best friend. Okay?”

“Okay,” Sirius breathes, highly aware of the heat splashing across his face, of James’ arms still around him.

I love you. I’m so fucking in love with you.

“Aren’t you going to say it back?” James demands, looking annoyed.

“Say what back?”

“That I’m your best friend.”

“What are you, five?” Sirius snorts. “You know you are.”

“Good,” James says.                

There’s a moment of silence, and then –

They move at the same time, so that their noses clash and James lets out a giggle, and they’re kissing – just like that, so easily – James’ lips soft and mellow on his own, and for five entire seconds Sirius can’t think of anything but how fucking nice it is, what he would give to just stay here like this.

“Alright,” James is smiling when he pulls back. “Let’s go fuck up a Death Eater.”

Sirius wants to feel irked that James thinks all this is some type of game, but his energy is contagious and Sirius can’t help but be excited too. He feels fearless next to him, fearless and strong and better than anyone who would try and cross them.

“Grab on, then,” he holds an arm out, and James takes hold of it.

Pop.

They arrive at the house together, James’ fingers still wrapped tightly around Sirius’ forearm.

“Oh, wow,” James says, letting go of Sirius and looking around at the room they’ve Apparated into. “We should move here instead, it’s much nicer than your flat.”

“There you are!” an anxious-sounding Remus hurries into the room. “It’s about time. Come on, we’re still questioning Maltby.”

“What kind of name is Maltby?” James wrinkles his nose.

“Look, James – before we go,” Sirius says, noticing the tensed expression on Remus’ face. “Be careful, okay? We’ll do what we can to keep you safe, but don’t – don’t do anything stupid or try to take him on alone or –“

“I’m not an idiot,” James huffs, forehead creasing in irritation.

Remus sighs. “Okay, then. Let’s go.”

They walk into the next room together, where Maltby is hidden from view behind Alastor and Emmaline, who both have their wands held up.

“We’ve been trying to interrogate him about the goblins,” Sirius murmurs to James, as Emmaline turns around to look at them.

But James doesn’t reply.

He’s staring, pale-faced and frozen, right at Arnus Maltby.

From under the blood splattered across his face, Arnus’s features morph into a horrid, slimy smile, laughing loudly when his eyes land on James.

“What’s the matter, Potter? You know, I always did tell Vinead that his memory charms were shit.”

“You fucking –“

“JAMES!” Sirius shouts, instinctively diving forward to grab onto James and stop him from charging directly at Arnus. “James, what did I just fucking say –“

“It’s him, Pads,” James is breathing heavily, his eyes still trapped on the Death Eater. His shoulders are trembling with rage. “He’s the one that killed Lily.”

--

Chapter Text

Silence drops like a stone, burying the room in its depth.

Sirius’ brain feels like a cauldron sloshing over with volatile liquid, except that the liquid is fury and it’s so hot that it’s melting through the barriers of his body. He’s vaguely aware of the blinding heat flashing through his skull, but it’s not until he feels Remus restraining him by the arms that he realizes he’s been aiming directly at Arnus Maltby’s throat.

“Padfoot,” Remus hisses, tugging him backwards with a sharp yank. “Stop –“

“Let me fucking go,” Sirius snarls. The shock has vapourized away, leaving nothing but unfettered, murderous violence in its place – now amassing inside him like a volcano minutes from eruption.

“Padfoot?” Arnus laughs again, a dirty and muculent noise. “You’re Padfoot? The Padfoot that Potter was crying for when we killed his Mudblood girlfriend?”

“She was my fiancée, you rotten piece of shit!” James shouts, struggling against the iron grip Moody has on his arm. “I’m going to kill you – I’m going to fucking –“

Padfoot, they’ve killed her,” Arnus whines in a high-pitched voice, sneering. “She was all I had and they’ve killed her, Padfoot, wahhhh. You sounded like a little girl.”

Silencio!” Moody snaps, and Arnus stops talking, his mouth forming soundless, indignant words. “Right. Black and Potter, in the other room. Vance, watch the scum.”

Remus and Moody pull James and Sirius into the next room, with James resisting belligerently and Sirius, slack in shock again, barely able to stand on his feet.

“I’m taking both of you off this interrogation,” Moody grunts once they’ve both been released. “Too closely involved. It won’t do us any favours.”

James steps back, livid. “What the fuck?“

“He’s the reason Lily is dead!” Sirius spits.

“Let me,” Remus says softly, glancing at Moody. “Go ahead with the interrogation.”

“I’m not changing my mind,” Moody says, looking sternly between them. “Both of you are off. That’s an order.” With that, he turns around and stalks back into the room.

“Remus, you can’t possibly – that Death Eater –“

“I know what he did, James,” Remus clears his throat. “I know.”

“How can you tell me to just fucking turn around and go home and ignore the fact that the man who ruined my life is sitting here, in my old fucking house?”

“All he’s doing is winding you up and making it difficult for us to do our job,” Remus says firmly. “Moody’s right. The two of you are too closely involved in this.”

“And you’re not?” Sirius glares at him, seething. “She was your friend too, Moony.”

“You know what I mean,” Remus sighs, looking straight at Sirius. There’s a pained, desperate look on his face. “Take him home. Please, Pads.”

“I’m not taking him anywhere. That’s not fair.”

“Take him home,” Remus says again. “Just –“ he bites his lips and lowers his voice to a murmur, so hushed that it’s almost inaudible, “remember fifth year.”

It’s the dark tone etched underneath his words that finally strikes a chord inside Sirius and compels him to agree, despite wanting to do nothing less in the entire world. Remus’ eyes are firm but disturbed, and they look uncannily sombre.

“Alright,” Sirius says quietly, holding his arm out to James. “Come on.”

James stares at him, mouth falling open.

“Come on.”

“No,” James says resolutely, his lips setting into a hard line. “No, Pads, what the fuck – you’re supposed to have my back, you said you would.”

“I know what I said,” Sirius says through grit teeth. “And I do.”

James splutters. “How is taking me home having my back?”

“Prongs,” Sirius swallows the sharp-edged lump in his throat, with difficulty. “Trust me, okay? I’m not asking for anything else.”

The brilliant, blazing light in James’ eyes extinguishes like a candle being snuffed out, and it makes Sirius’ heart shrivel up inside his chest. He takes a prolonged breath and expels it tiredly. “Okay. Fine.”

He glances at Remus, and Remus nods.

“I’m sorry,” Sirius whispers.

James shrugs, but his face is hard and impassive. He takes hold of Sirius’ arm with more force than necessary, staring silently into the ground.

Pop.

The second they arrive at the flat, James lets go and starts striding toward his room.

“Prongs,” Sirius groans, exasperated. “Don’t –“

The door slams shut.

What a fucking child. Sirius kicks the sofa, hissing slightly at the resulting throb in his foot. This is all James does; throwing tantrums and blaming Sirius for things that he has no control over. Did he expect Sirius disobey a direct order from Moody, and put even more of a strain on the Order during such dark times in the war, all because James won’t sit down for five minutes to let Sirius talk some sense into him?

Of course he’s gone and locked himself up in his room, of course he has to make this ten times more difficult than it genuinely needs to be, and of course now it’s Sirius’  job to pacify and placate and babysit him as usual.

It’s not like James to be the less level-headed of the two of them in any situation – although Sirius will admit that this is a situation unlike any that they’ve been in before. And – okay, it is selfish to throw his own concerns onto this towering tower of shit that James is already going through, but for a while now Sirius’ thoughts have been fixated on what the Death Eater has said about the night James lost his memory.

Can it really be true, that James had cried for him, that even after a year and a half of fury and stone-cold silence, that James had thought about him?

It should seem insignificant now that they’re friends again. But it’s not – the thought is enough to close up his throat, making everything beneath it feel hollow. Does it change anything? That for just a moment, even if it was a moment of desperation and anguish, the old James had missed Sirius?

What if he hadn’t lost his memory that night? Would James have come to find Sirius eventually? Would the grief of being attacked in his own home and Lily being killed have driven him back to Sirius’ flat for solace, so much so that even after eighteen months of anger James would need his best friend again?

It seems almost too bizarre to hope for, too farcical, and yet… hadn’t everything changed that night? Hadn’t that one tragic assault somehow led to what is now more than Sirius ever had the nerve to ask for – James moving in with him again, James wanting to spend every minute of the day with him, James kissing him?

He’s not one to put too much faith in the concept of fate, having had the one thing that he was certain he was meant for ripped away from him so cruelly, but for once it doesn’t seem like a nonsensical delusion to consider that one way or another this is what was always going to happen.

That somehow, whether or not James had lost his memory that night, they would still find themselves back here together – like they should have been the whole time. It’s a comforting thought, if not slightly idealistic, maybe even dangerous, in its implications.

If even the old, terrifyingly enraged James would have been able to find it in him to see past what had happened two years ago – does it not make sense that this James, the one who doesn’t remember anything, might too? Doesn’t it then follow that the right thing to do is tell James anyway?

The sound of James’ bedroom door clicking open makes Sirius look up abruptly.

James is coming out of his room, evidently ignoring Sirius and heading straight for the liquor cabinet.

“You’re drinking without me?” Sirius raises his eyebrows, watching him.

James scowls, reaching for an unopened bottle of gin. “You do plenty of things without considering me first.”

“James, don’t be daft,” Sirius sighs. “I was following orders.”

“I remembered it,” James says quietly. He twists open the bottle and takes a swig directly out of it. “I remembered what happened that night as soon as I saw his face. What they did to us, what they did to Lily…”

There’s a short, staccato silence.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” James shuts his eyes for a moment, grimacing. “I don’t want to talk about it, Sirius, because you clearly don’t give a flying fuck about –“

“He will pay for what he’s done,” Sirius interrupts. “I swear to you that I will make him pay.”

James looks up, unsmiling. “How?”

An image of gushing, torrential blood appears briefly in his mind. “Leave that to me. You said you’d trust me. I need you to keep your word, and I’ll keep mine.”

James bites his lip, thinking. And then he rubs his face with one hand and sits down at the dining table. “Okay. I trust you.”

You mean more than anything to me.

I would die for you.

I would kill for you.

“Here,” Sirius waves his wand, conjuring two glasses and sitting down with James.

James’ mouth flickers slightly and he pours them two drinks. “Thanks.”

They both drink quietly for a few moments. And then –  “What did it feel like?” Sirius asks. “Remembering?”

“Painful,” James looks away. “They tortured us, I could feel how it felt, I could hear Lily screaming – she was screaming and crying, begging me to make them stop – and I couldn’t… they made me watch her die, and I couldn’t do anything – “ he stops suddenly, taking a big gulp from the glass. “I don’t remember much about her, but no one – nobody deserves to die like that.”

The breath washing into Sirius’ lungs feels bitter and dry. James looks so broken, so lost, stuck inside a turbulent past he doesn’t even know about.

“They were laughing when they killed her,” James whispers, pinching the edge of his nose. “She was in so much pain, and they enjoyed it.”

Something inside Sirius splits open, and the blood rushing through his veins suddenly feels too hot, boiling up with a ruthless need to make this right. For James, and for Lily, and for everyone who’d lost her, everyone who’d loved her.

“I thought it would help me make sense of things, remembering what happened, but…” James shakes his head, his voice breaking. “It doesn’t. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Sirius pours himself a new glass and downs it in one go. Beautiful, clever, kind Lily. Gone. He’ll never get to say sorry now. It’s one thing to have James beside him again – it’s a whole other to live with the wrong he had done without ever making amends with her. “I wish there was something I could have done.”

James is staring blankly at the wall. The gin lies abandoned in front of him on the table. “There’s nothing anyone can do now except make sure he’s punished.”

“And he will be,” Sirius tells him firmly. “As soon as Moody has the intelligence that he needs for the Order.”

James shrugs, dismal. “Whenever that happens to be.”

“James.” Sirius touches his arm. “I know it’s difficult to wait, but –“

“But nothing,” James interrupts, sounding irritated. “Whatever. I get it. They need him alive.”

“Only until –“

“Yeah, I get it,” he says again, pulling away from Sirius. “I’m going to bed.”

“Whatever you need,” Sirius says softly, watching him get up.

James takes a deep breath, looking at Sirius, his eyes so sad it causes a physical ache in him. “I don’t mean to be moody, Pads,” he reaches for Sirius’ face and brushes a thumb lightly on the crest of his cheekbone. The touch leaves small rivulets of heat running beneath the skin, like an imprint. “It’s just been a long day.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Sirius says at once. “Be as moody as you want to. You deserve to be.”

James smiles vaguely, but even that seems fractured. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“Yeah, me too,” Sirius says, and he means it.

--

He arrives at the house several hours after midnight, encroached in darkness and silence.

The journey here had been easy once James fell asleep. It’s better this way, Sirius thinks. James has enough on his mind, he doesn’t need this one more thing. And after hours of tossing and turning over in bed, trying to sleep had proven futile. Thoughts of Lily kept invading his mind, thoughts of what he’d done, thoughts about how there is really only one way to do right by her and make up for his mistake.

This has always been the plan, anyway. He just needed to wait for a moment alone with the captive Death Eater. Does James truly believe that Sirius will not rip Maltby's throat out, that he won't make him beg for mercy, to regret the day he ever laid a finger on James? Does James truly think Sirius is capable of being anything but violent and vindictive now that they know who did this to him? Sirius scoffs. Have a little faith, for fuck's sake, James.

He starts walking soundlessly toward the front door, taking large purposeful steps.

The noise of a twig snapping behind him makes him jump, and he immediately swivels around with his wand held out.

It’s Remus. Pale, skin stretched a little bit taut over the bones on his face.

“I knew you’d show up back here,” he says.

Sirius exhales. “Yeah, well, I’m really not in the mood to argue with you, mate –“

“I’m not arguing,” Remus says. He nods toward the house. “Couldn’t sleep?”

“No,” Sirius looks down morosely. “I just keep thinking about Lily.”

“Me too.”

“I know that it’s going to cost us intelligence, but –“

“Fuck the intelligence,” Remus says. “Moody says Maltby is nowhere close to talking anyway. And every day that that vermin gets to live, while Lily lies in a grave…”

“But you said –“

“I know what I said,” Remus cuts him off. “I needed Moody to trust me. He knew we were all close to Lily and I didn’t want him to take me off as well. He let me stay overnight to guard Maltby.”

Sirius looks at Remus, eyebrows jumping upwards in surprise. “You planned this?”

“Of course I did.”

Sirius grins suddenly, a rush of warm, glowing pride filling his chest. “Merlin. You’re fucking incredible.”

Remus smiles softly. “Remember what I said? About fifth year?”

“Yeah, with Snape,” Sirius glances up at the sky, where a full moon is hidden behind a slowly drifting cloud. “Have you taken the potion?”

Remus nods.

“Let’s do this,” Sirius says gravely, eyes locking with Remus for a brief second. “For Lily.”

“For Lily.”

A few moments pass by as they cast their gaze upwards silently, as the cloud gently slides away from the moon, revealing the perfectly round sphere in all its luminescence. The light of the moon seems to bend downwards from the sky and touch every inch of the neighbourhood.

Sirius waits for several more seconds. And then –

A long, haunted howl sounds beside him, reverberating through the night.

On cue, Sirius feels his body begin to shift and morph too.

For Lily.

And together, bristling, they pad steadily towards the unlit house: werewolf and dog, side by side, hungry for blood.

--

Chapter Text

In the morning, Sirius’ head feels clearer than it has in months.

He returns home just as the gentle heat of dawn starts flaring across the sky, burnt orange splattering like paint against baby blue. The flat is quiet – which can only mean that James is still sound asleep. Good. Sirius doesn’t know what excuse he could possibly come up with for disappearing in the middle of the night anyway – and besides, lying to James feels like something he has to strain against his very nature to accomplish – like using his wand with the wrong hand, or taking Muggle transport.

He slips back inside and heads straight for the shower. Steaming hot water rains noisily onto his skin, and he watches the red-brown swirls of bloody muck wash away and disappear into the drain, carrying the violence of the night along with it.

It had been quick, in the end – neither him nor Remus had the patience to draw it out for long, but the screaming, the pleas for mercy, and the way Arnus’ blood had spurted out, hot against Sirius’ fangs…

It’s what he deserved.

Once he’s clean and dry, he dumps the dirty robes into a nondescript bag and down into the bottomless bin that James conjured up (after the countless arguments they’d been having on whose turn it was to take the rubbish out). The sun has fully risen by now, but James still hasn’t emerged from his room.

Sirius briefly considers going back to bed, but the thought seems pointless as soon as it appears in his head. After an uncertain look at the dwindling options available in the pantry (they definitely need to go food shopping soon), he decides eating is off the table as well. Is it too early to drink? Of course it’s too early to drink, it’s seven in the bloody morning. Drinking alone has lost its old appeal anyway, now that he’s used to drinking with James.

Several minutes of pacing around the living room later, he finally elects to go stand outside James’ closed bedroom door, for lack of anything else to do. It’s bizarre to him now, how he managed to spend so many days in complete, unbroken solitude before James moved into his flat. How he’d been content to shut himself inside alone and not speak to a single living soul for weeks on end. What did he even do, day after day after day? How did he manage to entertain himself? He can’t think of a single enjoyable activity to do now that doesn’t involve James.

He raises his knuckles and raps on the door, unnecessarily, because he knows James won’t hear it if he’s still asleep. The silence that follows confirms this, so Sirius hesitantly turns the knob and grins when he sees that it’s not locked.

He’s been in James’ room before, of course, but not often. They’re both fond of the dining table near the living room (mainly because of its proximity to the liquor cabinet) and normally only retire to their bedrooms when they get into fights or go to sleep. Sirius pushes the door open gently and steps inside, taking a look around the place.

James hasn’t changed what used to be a spare, empty guestroom much, except to fill it with his possessions, yet the room already seems to reflect its owner; chaotic but filled with pride and warmth. There are ridiculous posters of him and Sirius, blown up larger than life and smiling awkwardly, that James insisted on immortalizing on his wall the day after he moved in – “the beginning of an era, Pads” – alongside half-open spellbooks filled with studious scrawls and a growing collection of merchandise of his favourite Quidditch team. It’s all so undeniably, unapologetically James that Sirius can’t help but smile when he enters.

And then he looks at the bed, and his chest suddenly feels too small to contain the swelling heart within it. James is a stomach-sleeper, a bad habit Sirius used to chide him about at Hogwarts, but one side of his face is turned toward Sirius, the other side pressed into the pillow. As always, he looks younger without his glasses on, and his entire body from the neck down is bundled up in blankets, like a baby.

Fuck.

It’s so stupidly, impossibly unfair how just the sight of James kindles such a dizzying feeling in Sirius. It doesn’t make sense, it never has. It seems like all James has to do is exist to infect Sirius with this relentless devotion that he still struggles to understand. Years and years have passed since the moment he first became aware of how he felt for James – but instead of diminishing, the feeling has only escalated and deepened over time; even when it was excruciating to do so, even when it had nearly killed him – Sirius realizes now that he doesn’t actually know how not to love James.

James mumbles something incoherent and shifts slightly on the bed, knocking Sirius out of his thoughts, and suddenly he’s aware that he’s here, he’s in James’ room again. “Prongs,” he says, shaking James’ shoulder gently. “Wake up, you sloth.”

“Bugger off, Pads,” James groans and rolls over, huddling under the blanket. “I don’t want to go in to work today.”

“I know that,” Sirius says, pleased that he’d already thought of this. “I told Remus we’re both taking the day off.”

Both of us?”

“Did you think I’d just let you sit around at home by yourself?”

James’ head reappears from under the blanket. He rubs at his eyes with the back of his hand, squinting at Sirius. “And what, the Order’s just agreed to that?”

“Given your circumstances, they’d kind of be dicks not to.”

James lets out an annoyed huff. “I don’t need anyone feeling sorry for me.”

“Nobody’s feeling sorry for you,” Sirius smiles slightly, “not even me. Now get up, I’m not letting you stay in bed all day.”

“I take that back, I want you to feel tremendously sorry for me.”

“Nope,” Sirius pushes the blanket off James, tugging him by the arms and dragging him into a sitting-up position. “I’ve got big plans for our day off.”

“What plans?”

“I’m taking you to St. Mungo’s.”

James’ nose wrinkles in distaste. “The hospital? Why?”

“I think it would be a good idea to get a Healer’s opinion on the way you’ve been randomly remembering things lately. They told us that you’d lost your memory for good, which you clearly haven’t.”

James considers this and nods. It occurs to Sirius, in the few moments of casual silence that follow, that when James is sitting against the white backdrop of his bedsheets like this, with the sunlight seeping over his skin, glinting against his eyes and turning the soft brown to burnished gold – he looks like he’s in a painting, something resplendent, something priceless. Every bone inside Sirius’ body aches to touch him, to pin James’ body down with his, to feel the fever of James’ mouth against his own. A hunger that hurts to deny.

“You look like you haven’t slept,” James is saying, looking at him. He hesitates – very briefly – and then brushes the pads of his fingertips, like a kiss, just above Sirius’ cheekbone. Like he wants to make sure that it’s okay, as if this would ever not be okay. “You’ve got dark circles, here. Were you having nightmares?”

Sirius says nothing, wanting neither to lie nor tell the truth. He feels like James’ touch has turned him to stone; he doesn’t want to move, doesn’t want to do anything at all that might shatter this delicate moment.

James smiles, and it irradiates his whole face. “I wonder what kind of terrible things scare Sirius Black,” he says, eyes twinkling. He’s leaning forward as he speaks, a movement that would appear almost imperceptible, if not for how closely Sirius is watching him. “Dragons, maybe, anyone would be stupid not to be scared of them. Vampires? Giants? Maybe it’s something ridiculous, something small – are you afraid of spiders? There’s no shame in it, you know, arachnophobia’s one of the most common fears in the world.”

“If I were afraid of spiders I wouldn’t have rescued you from that big hairy thing in the kitchen last week,” Sirius snorts. “You were the one that jumped up onto the chair screaming.”

“That thing was a monstrosity and you know it,” James says, shuddering at the memory. He’s leaning so close now that Sirius can see every fleck of colour in his eyes, can smell the faint, powdery scent of his skin. “What are you afraid of then? If you are of anything, that is.”

“Of course I am,” Sirius says, and he loves the way this makes James’ eyes gleam, like a child being offered a forbidden treat, or being let in on an important secret.

“Go on, then,” James says, voice hushed and sounding awed. “Tell me, what is it?”

“Okay,” Sirius warns gravely, “but you cannot laugh.”

“I won’t.”

“I mean it, it’s a very traumatic subject for me.”

“Promise,” James is grinning now, and it’s growing difficult for Sirius to keep drawing his attention away from that mouth.

“I… am afraid,” Sirius whispers, and James leans in even closer to hear, so that their noses are almost touching, “… of dolls.”

Dolls?” James repeats, after a pause, his eyebrows knitting in confusion. “Like voodoo dolls? Or like little girl dolls?”

“All of them.”

Why?”

Sirius hesitates. “It’s – well, it’s stupid.”

James’ face is bright and eager and when he talks Sirius can feel the heat of his breath. “I want to know.”

Sirius sighs. “When I was a boy, long before I’d even gone to Hogwarts, my mother had this extremely ugly doll that she kept shut away in one of the cupboards at home. It was as big as a human child, with this horrible huge smile painted on its face and long, black hair. It wore this raggedy, bloodstained dress. And whenever Regulus or I misbehaved, if my mother was in a particularly foul mood, she’d bring this doll out and sit it on a chair and put us alone in a room with it. And as soon as she closed the door and locked it, this horrible doll would spring to life and start screaming all sorts of things to us, about what bad children we were, and how it was going to punish us. It would even jump up and start chasing us around the room sometimes – well, you can imagine what that was like, when we so young. It scared the living shit out of both of us.”

“Was the doll haunted?”

“No,” Sirius laughs, and it comes out sounding only a little bitter, to his credit. “No, that was just my mother’s way of carrying out justice in our household. It was just a spell, bewitching inanimate objects to make them do whatever she wanted. I know that now, of course. But every time I see a doll I still remember what it was like, to be so truly terrified.”

“Well, yeah,” James says, and Sirius is surprised to see that there’s no hint of laughter, no mockery on his face, the way he’d expected – there’s nothing there but a fierce, firm tenderness. It makes Sirius’ entire body feel like it’s about to melt. “It’s not stupid, by the way. You shouldn’t think that it is.”

Merlin, this is too much – the way James is so close to him now, how he still looks soft with traces of sleep in his eyes, and how comforting it feels to be able to unpack these private, buried-away pieces of himself to James, having them accepted so quickly, and without question… even if Sirius wanted to, he knows he’d be powerless to stop the way his body drives itself into James, his mouth moving sudden and greedy until it finds James’ lips. And nothing, nothing that Sirius has ever felt feels as good as this does, as James kissing him back and the way his fingers scrabble and get caught in the hair at the back of Sirius’ head, the way he pulls him in closer, closer, shutting every inch of space between their bodies.

Does James have any idea how this makes him feel? Sirius thinks he must look pathetic, or desperate, because he definitely feels like it – James must know how much Sirius fucking wants him, it must be so obvious – his hand slides under Sirius’ robes, soft against the warm skin; and even this enough, Sirius thinks, even if this is all he ever gets it would be fucking enough, because it’s James touching and kissing him, and –

James jolts away suddenly, like a current of lightning has passed through him.

“What?” Sirius says breathlessly, and he hates how whiney he sounds, how needy. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” James shakes his head and blinks, wiping the hair off his flushed forehead. “I’m sorry – I said I wouldn’t bring up what happened before. Forget it.”

“Did you just remember something?” Sirius’ voice is steady but he can feel the panic swelling inside him, the way it has done so frequently. It’s a reminder of how fragile this little game he’s playing with James is, how reckless. How any moment now something could materialize in James’ memory to make him leave again. “Prongs, tell me.”

“Yeah, but I said –“

“Tell me what it was.”

James looks at him, puzzled at his agitation. “It’s just – I got this feeling, I don’t know… I know I said I wouldn’t ask any more questions but – well, it wasn’t just something we did for fun, was it? I mean, it wasn’t just… messing around, like I’d thought.”

Sirius feels like the air has suddenly become too thick to breathe, collecting like resin in his lungs.

“I don’t want to push it, Pads, you know I don’t – so tell me to shut up, please, at any point,” James says warily, watching him like he’s afraid Sirius is going to bite, “but I just got this feeling, and it was so strong, and so clear – it was like –“

“Like what?” the words are an effort to get out, and for a dazed moment Sirius thinks about James asking him what are you afraid of? And he knows that this is the answer, that more than dolls, more than anything, this is what he’s afraid of – this very moment, what feels like they’re on the brink of everything being ruined all over again.

But James doesn’t pull away. There’s no anger on his face. Instead, it’s a look of wonder, of warmth, that feels like Sirius is sinking into a pool of sunlight.

“Is it a bit too early for me to say that I love you, when I feel like I’ve loved you for years?”

His face is sheepish, flustered blotches of red flaring up under his skin when Sirius doesn’t respond for a few moments. “Look, forget it –“

No,” Sirius breathes, and he wants to laugh, or maybe cry, because it’s so ridiculous that James should be embarrassed by admitting this, and because it’s such a relief, such a beautiful fucking relief, to hear James say those words to him after Sirius had been so convinced that he never would again. He doesn’t even know how his body is possibly containing this magnitude of emotion, he feels like he’s so in love right now that it should just be burning right through his skin. “No, James, it’s not too early.”  

“No?” James smiles weakly at him, his cheeks still pink. “Thank fuck for that.”

“I should’ve told you about it, about us,” Sirius says quietly. “I should have told you before.”

“What would’ve been the point, unless I could remember it?” James shrugs. “And I was starting to guess myself, anyway. I didn’t think it was normal how quickly I went from just fancying you to, you know, feeling the way I felt. I kind of had some suspicions that maybe I was remembering emotions from before.”

“It doesn’t have to change anything between us,” Sirius says quickly. “I know things are different now, so –“

“If changing anything means I get to do this more often,” James’ hand is on his face, his words coming out punctured with the kisses he’s peppering all over him, like an excited puppy, “then I’m all for it.”

Sirius laughs – a genuine, loud laugh – and he’s suddenly so full of light that he doesn’t feel like himself, doesn’t feel anything like the hardened, bleeding shell of himself he’d become two years ago. He feels, for the first time after all those months like the real Sirius, like the Sirius he’d been when he’d had James, during the best and brightest years of his life.

And it doesn’t erase what happened, of course, it doesn’t take away the chance that James might remember what had gone wrong – but sitting here with James holding him, like this, he can’t bring himself to think of anything but how desperately good this feels. This is what it should have been like, every single day for the past two years. It feels like there’s so much lost time to make up for and James is only just starting to scratch the surface. All Sirius wants to do is just lie down and have James keep kissing him, over and over and over again –

And James does.

--

Chapter Text

The questions come soon after, of course, and without relent.

Now that Sirius has revealed a tiny corpuscle of truth about their history, James seems ravenous for more, all previous promises of “forgetting the past” abandoned in a newfound search for answers. The questions are more difficult to answer now than before, entering dangerous territory like why was I engaged to Lily if I loved you and who else knew about us and is that why we fell out?

“Stop it,” Sirius snaps irritably after about a good hour of pointless interrogation. If he’d known that this was the price to pay for having James all over him again, he thinks he might have declined. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You know I’m just going to remember it all again eventually anyway.”

“I don’t know that,” Sirius lets out through gritted teeth.

“Come off it, Sirius,” James frowns. “You know me well enough now. What could be so bad that you can’t tell me about it?”

“I knew you for well enough when it happened,” Sirius says, voice quiet. “And you knew me a lot better than you do now.”

“You can’t hold me accountable for something I don’t remember doing, that’s not fair,” James’ arms are crossed defensively over his chest, and even though they’re only a few inches apart on the bed, Sirius feels like he’s talking to him through a brick wall.

His temper is rising steadily, buoyed by an undercurrent of bubbling anxiety. How many times is James going to try and reuse the same old, tired argument? Sirius is fucking sick of it, and not even the afterglow of kissing is enough to override that. It’s an infuriating irony, how in wanting to quash the past down into oblivion, all he’s done is make it stronger and more powerful.

“I need a cigarette,” he announces finally, pushing his way off of the bed.

Pads,” James throws him an exasperated look. “Okay, fine – I’ll drop it.”

Sirius pauses, not saying anything.

“You’re right, you don’t need to tell me anything you don’t want to. I shouldn’t have asked. Just – stay here. Please.”

Please.

Sirius takes a deep breath and exhales it slowly. James is looking up at him, in that adulating, vulnerable way – and Sirius can’t refuse that look, he never has.

“Alright,” he surrenders, after a moment. “But I’m smoking in here.”

James smiles at that, looking relieved. It’s almost intoxicating, how with just a few words Sirius has to power to change James’ moods, to grant him irritation or laughter or lassitude.

Sirius digs for the pack of cigarettes, pulling one out of the misshapen carton and lighting it with his wand. James doesn’t say anything, just watches him as he takes a drag, the incalescence of his gaze cutting straight through the spires of grey smoke that float up between them.

“I meant what I said,” Sirius says after a moment, discomfited by the silence. “I really don’t want to talk about it.”

“I know. I’m sorry for asking. I just – I was curious, that’s all.”

“Can’t really blame you,” Sirius shrugs. “But I’d rather not revisit what happened.”

“That’s okay,” James squeezes Sirius’ free wrist briefly. “You don’t need to.”

Sirius puffs on the cigarette, trying not to think about the way James had looked that final night; a stranger, the revulsion and fury etched like physical wounds on his face. And Sirius had done that to him, it had been his fault.

You fucking ruined this, Sirius, don’t you fucking look at me like that.

 At least he can admit that now. He hadn’t been able to, two years ago. Sirius thinks that must count for something.

--

“We should’ve brought something to drink,” he grumbles, looking rancorously around the hospital waiting room where he and James have been sitting waiting to see a Healer for what feels like ages.

“Why is it that your response to every minor inconvenience is to demand a drink?” James laughs. “It’s only been ten minutes.”

“Ten minutes I could’ve spent getting drunk,” Sirius says pointedly, then adds, “I hate hospitals.”

“Why?”

Sirius glances at the myriad of unsightly, injured and magically disfigured witches and wizards sitting around them. One witch is vomiting something purple and pungent into a bucket across the room, another letting out loud whistles like a kettle every few minutes. “It’s not exactly pleasant, is it?”

“No, I guess not. This is where I met you, though. Well, ‘met’,” he says, adding quotation marks onto the word. “You know what I mean.”

“Mm, that’s true. That might be one of the only pleasant memories I’ve had of this place.”

“Why, what were the others?”

Sirius shakes his head, unwilling to delve into the firmly shut-away memories of every single morning that he’d woken up in the hospital – to the miserable and pathetic fact that he was still alive, still intact enough to have to suffer the torment of having lost James.

A tall, balding Healer in lime green robes steps out into the waiting room, holding a clipboard. “James Potter?”

“That’s me!” James jumps up enthusiastically, beaming. “Finally!”

“Yes, yes, finally,” the Healer repeats crossly, unamused. “Come on in.”

Sirius follows James and the Healer to the fourth floor, and into a humble consulting room that’s been meagrely decorated with a few plants in an attempt to make it feel more comfortable. James takes a seat and Sirius settles next to him.

“Now, I see from your records that you’ve been the victim of a memory charm, yes?” the Healer peers at James, after a quick scan of the clipboard. “It says here that the damage was permanent, due to the nature of the attack?”

“That’s what we thought,” James says. “But apparently not.”

“Apparently not?”

“I’ve been remembering things,” James says proudly, puffing his chest out a little. “Even though the last few Healers told me I never would.”

The Healer rubs thoughtfully at the bald spot on his head. “What kind of things have you been remembering?” he asks curiously.

“I remembered the person who attacked me. And some memories with Sirius here.”

“And Lily’s favourite cake,” Sirius adds quietly.

James looks at him for a moment. “Yeah. And my fiancée’s favourite cake.”

“Was there any connection between the things you remembered?”

James ponders this for several moments, then says, “No, not that I can think of.”

“Any similarities between how you felt – your emotions – when you remembered these things?”

James shakes his head.

“Very curious indeed,” the Healer muses, staring at him with a new kind of interest, like a botanist examining a strange new herb. “Do you normally faint after remembering things?”

“The first time it happened – it was at a Christmas party, I felt really ill and sort of lost consciousness afterward, for a few minutes. But not any of the other times.”

“Hmmm,” the Healer says. “Well, as I’m sure the Healers told you during your last visit, memory charms normally only come undone through the use of extensive torture under the Cruciatus Curse. We as a hospital are strictly against using this method on our patients, of course, but we have been studying it in Ministry-approved ways – it’s very new research, still in its infancy… but there is a theory, if you would be interested.”

“Well, that’s why I’m here, isn’t it?”

“Our experiments seem to suggest that the reason the Cruciatus Curse is able to reverse severe memory charms is because of its undeniable ability to cause pain. Physical pain, yes, but we humans are funny creatures. For us, pain tends to be very much an emotional experience as it is physical. Some might even say the two are intrinsically linked to one another. Physical pain leads to mental suffering, and vice versa. Does that make sense?”

James nods.

“Can I ask,” the Healer says. “Each time you remembered something, did it happen at moments that you were experiencing very powerful emotions?”

“What do you mean?”

“Pain, though not many are aware, is one of the most powerful emotions one can be subject to. There are others, of course: love, fear, and so on. The reason we believe the Cruciatus is able to restore memory is that it taps into emotional pain in such a direct and efficient way that is rarely mirrored by normal, everyday occurrences. This powerful emotion helps fire up your neural links, reactivating some that may have been silenced by the memory charm.”

“But I haven’t been put under the Curse,” James says, forehead creasing. “Not since I was attacked anyway, and that was before the memory charm.”

“No,” the Healer says, “but as I said, pain is not the only strong emotion. Though not yet recorded, it is possible that other feelings that you experience very intensely may act on your brain in a similar manner.”

“That does make sense, actually,” James says, looking at Sirius. “Remember? When I was at my old place, and I saw Arnus’ face, how angry it made me… and that day at work, when I had the dream about Hogwarts, I’d been so frustrated and bored. And when you –“

“That’s all very well,” Sirius interrupts, flushing. “But what are we supposed to do about it?”

“There’s not much to be done, unfortunately,” the Healer replies. “I can put you on a course for remedial potions, which may help speed things up slightly. But as powerful emotions only flare up once in a while, as and when life merits them, the memories will probably only come back to you in random, disjointed intervals.”

“Oh,” James says, looking disappointed. “Is that it?”

“I’m afraid so. Take the potions, I’d like for you to come back in several weeks and let me know if they’ve helped.”

James sighs. “Well, I wouldn’t get my hopes up. The memory potions didn’t do anything to help the last time. But thanks anyway, at least now I know what’s causing me to remember things.”

The Healer scribbles a prescription for them, advising James on the doses to take his potions in, and several minutes later they’ve gathered themselves up and are heading back down toward the reception of the hospital.

“How underwhelming,” James says, as they make their way towards the front door of the hospital. “Are you okay? You’ve been very quiet.”

Sirius lights himself a cigarette once they’re outside in the crisp evening air. “Doesn’t it bother you, that every time we – that it’s been after we kissed that you remembered things about us?”

“Why would it? He said love was a powerful emotion, didn’t he?”

Sirius casts his gaze to the ground. The smoke from the cigarette tastes dirty and shameful. “And what if us being together causes you to remember other things? Bad things?”

James stares at him. “What bad things?”

“The things that I don’t want to talk about, James,” Sirius says, struggling to get the words out without crushing them first. “What if I kiss you, and you remember something that makes you hate me?”

“Why would I ever hate you?”

“Because you did,” his voice does break this time, and Sirius feels like his throat is so tight he can barely breathe. “Because I did something stupid two years ago, something selfish, and you – you hated me for it.”

It’s frightening, how difficult this is to admit to James, how every word that he says feels like broken, bleeding glass in his mouth – any moment now, he will have said too much and James will turn around and walk right out of his life again – and Sirius can’t even imagine that, he knows that there’s no way in hell that he can possibly survive losing James a second time; it would be too much, too fucking much for him to take again.

“What are you talking about, Pads?”

“Have you ever stopped to consider,” Sirius flings the half-smoked cigarette aside, “that maybe the things you’re so eager to find out about me may not be entirely to your liking?”

James tilts his head at him, confused.

“That maybe the reason I don’t want to tell you why we stopped talking is because – because you wanted me dead, Prongs, you –“ he stops sharply and shuts his eyes, the memories strangling the words into oblivion. “You said you never wanted to see me again.”

James opens his mouth and closes it again. “I –“

“I can’t lose you,” Sirius whispers, pain flaring through his chest. “Not fucking again.”

“You won’t,” James says earnestly, and it makes Sirius want to cry, because he doesn’t know, he has no fucking clue what he’s saying.

“I tried to kill myself when you cut me off,” Sirius lets out a painful breath, and he can’t even bring himself to look at James while he talks, can’t stand the recrudescence of regret that’s now surging through his entire body. “I tried to kill myself, over and over, because I couldn’t take a day living without you.”

“Sirius –“

“I need to show you,” he’s talking feverishly, the words suddenly spilling out like an avalanche, one after the other, desperate to be heard. “I need you to know that I – I wasn’t going to hurt her, James. I just wanted – I just wanted you back, all I wanted was to have you back, and – “

“Sirius, hey, calm down,” James looks alarmed, his hand on Sirius’ shoulder. “It’s okay, it’s okay.”

Sirius can barely hear him. He’s heaving out throaty gasps for air, breathing so hard and fast that his lungs feel about to burst, as memories flood to the surface of his mind - he’d begged James, he’d done everything he could and it still hadn’t been enough - and James, looking at him like he was something filthy, a stain to have scrubbed off. How could he have left him there like that? Couldn’t he see Sirius falling into pieces right in front of him, couldn’t he see anything

James’ eyes are wide now, staring at him helplessly.

And suddenly Sirius is crying. Bewildered, hot tears, wracking out so hard, so quickly that it seems like they’re coming from everywhere at once. 

Don’t you fucking dare touch me, Sirius, or I swear to God I’ll kill you. 

”What is it?” James is asking, hands still on Sirius’ shoulders, almost shaking him. “What’s wrong?” 

Sirius shakes his head, trying to blink past the tears, trying not to dissolve into a sodden, disgusting puddle of shame right in front of James. 

Sirius.”

If James is to find out anything about what happened that night, if he is to remember anything at all, Sirius needs it to be from him. He needs to know. He needs to understand that all Sirius had ever, ever wanted was him.

“I can’t let you remember it the way you saw it,” he says at last, furiously wiping off the cold wetness on his face. “I need you to understand.” 

”Understand what? What is it that you’re trying to tell me?” 

“Everything,” Sirius swallows, raising his gaze to meet James’. “I’m going to tell you everything.”

--

Chapter Text

 

James gapes at him for several moments, all the final traces of nonchalance now seeping off his face. In the short silence that comes after, Sirius forces himself to breathe, furiously willing that his brain rescind all the messy red panic currently coursing through his bloodstream. It takes a few moments, but James’ stunned silence gives him enough time to compose himself and erase the wetness on his face with the back of his hand.

James sounds cautious when he finally speaks, but Sirius still catches the hopeful, fluttery note of excitement trilling beneath his words. “Wait. By everything you mean… everything?”

Sirius grinds a small pebble on the ground under the bottom of his shoe, unwilling to meet his eye. “That is what everything means, isn’t it?”

James opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. He shuts it, opens it again, gestures his arms around silently in speechless conversation.

Sirius resents that James looks like a child being allowed to open Christmas presents a day early. That to him, this is nothing but an elusive puzzle piece that he’s finally getting to slot into place – not a warzone, an ugly minefield planted with failures, regrets; both his and Sirius’. “You do know that I can’t read your mind, however much you’d like for me to,” he says stiffly, after half a minute of observing James’ silent hand-flapping about. 

The radiant excitement on James’ face grades away at that, as quickly as it had appeared, and then he frowns, suddenly suspicious. “Hey, are you – are you feeling quite alright?”

A stinging burst of humiliation rushes to Sirius’ skin like a slap. The damp remnants of tears on his face start prickling, turning to acid. “I’m fine,” he says, his voice rough around the edges.

“But a moment ago you were just –“ James pauses, his eyes flicking over Sirius hesitantly, searching like headlights. “Look – I’m just trying to understand here. What’s going on with you? You’re all over the place.”

“Nothing’s going on.”

“What were you talking about, killing yourself, and – and me hating you? What was all that? Why do you suddenly want to tell me everything that happened?”

For one agonizing moment Sirius tries to picture what that must’ve looked like to James, the way he’d disintegrated like dust, corroded so pathetically to tears right in front of him – but the thought revolts him so much that he can’t stand to sustain it for longer than a second. James is still looking at him, the space between his eyebrows tightened together, with golden diamond shards of late afternoon sun glinting off his glasses.

“I think,” Sirius says finally, speaking very slowly and with each word making his ribs feel like they’re shrinking within his chest, “that I’ve been pretending not telling you about what happened might make all of it disappear. That if I didn’t talk about it, or even think about it, it would be like it didn’t happen.”

James watches him, the fissure lines in his forehead deepening.

“You were my best friend, James, does it not bother you that whatever happened must’ve been really fucking terrible for us to fall out like that, and for so long?”

“Look, I told you that if you don’t want to talk about it, we don’t –“

“No, we do need to talk about it,” he interrupts. He doesn’t know how to explain that every moment since James came back has felt like his breath’s been trapped in his lungs, rattling against his chest and growing desperate to escape. “You said it yourself – there’s a good chance you’re going to remember all of it anyway. I’d like for you to at least know my version of events before that happens.”

So that if you decide to stay after this, it won’t only be because you’ve lost your memory anymore.

James looks like he’s considering this. For several quiet, swollen moments Sirius almost wants to take it all back, waving everything he’s just said all away like smoke, letting himself stay here with James in this little alternate universe of theirs for as long as he can possibly make it last –

But then what? Sooner or later the time when the memory returns, won’t he just have to lose James a second time? Have all the ugly events from two years ago replay themselves like some sickening, recurring nightmare that he’s caught in, powerless to change? No, fuck that. Sirius will shred the world to pieces with his bare hands before letting James walk out of his life like that again. These past few months can’t have all been for nothing, this whimsical, star-studded resuscitation of the only thing that has ever made Sirius happy, the one thing he’d thought was lost to him forever, renewed so deliciously right here in front of his disbelieving eyes – this is a second chance, damn it, and Sirius is not going to let it burn without putting up a furious fight.

“Okay,” James says at last, turning back up and letting his gaze fasten onto Sirius attentively. “It’s your call, Pads. If you’re ready to talk about it, I’m all ears, you know I am.”

He shakes his head. “Not like this. There’s something else I need your help with first.”

James raises his eyebrows in question. “What?”

“You’ll see.”

--

Please tell me you’re joking.”

Sirius ignores him, stalking around the graveyard like a predator and scanning the names inscribed onto the tombstones, one by one. The sun’s long gone beneath the horizon now, and the sky it leaves behind is a smoky velutinous black; obsidian and completely starless. The earth smells damp and woody, with the remnants of a light drizzle still making it squelch under their shoes.

The journey here has allowed Sirius to cram away the terror of having to rip open all these bone-deep stitches in favour of a clear, logical head. What began as the faintest glimmer of an absurd idea is starting to make so much sense, now that they’re basically knee-deep in it – he decides promptly that this has to be the best, if not only way to go about explaining what happened to James.

Telling him would be stupid, of course, because words are unreliable, easily manipulated and far too flimsy. Showing him, on the other hand…

“Ah,” he says, finally happening upon the small sepulchre that he’s been looking for, with the words Arcturus Black III gleaming beneath the glow of his wand. “Reducto.”

The curse blasts violently against the stone wall of the tomb, splitting it into grainy bits of rock and rubble that explode everywhere.

“No, no, no,” James interrupts suddenly, pulling Sirius backwards by the sleeve of his robes. “You look here, Sirius fucking Black. I agreed to Apparate all the way to Windsor with you, I agreed to break into a cemetery with you, but I absolutely, positively draw the fucking line at destroying some poor old man’s grave with you.”

“He was my grandfather, and he was anything but poor,” Sirius scoffs, tugging himself free. “Move out of the way.”

“Oh, he’s your grandfather, so that makes it okay then, does it?”

“Yes,” Sirius gives his wand another harsh, sharp wave, so that when the second curse splinters through the tomb, the dark wood of a coffin lying within it becomes visible. “Are you going to give me a hand, or do you plan on just standing there squawking at me all night?”

“Can you at least explain to me why we’re doing this, before I indulge your insanity?”

“I thought it was obvious,” Sirius stops and turns to face him. “I need to dig up my grandfather’s grave.”

“Yeah, I got that,” James says testily. “But why?”

“Because we need to borrow something that he was buried with.”

“Borrowed, implying you’ll put it back?”

“When we’re done with it, yes.”

“Insanity,” James declares, shaking his head and pulling out his wand to help. “Insanity beyond question.”

With James’ assistance, the rest of the obliteration of the protective layers of stone encasing the coffin takes only a few moments. Flecks of dust and ash swirl in the air around them like snow, spraying into their eyes and falling in a fine layer over their robes. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” he murmurs absentmindedly to James, stepping into the space and lowering his gaze into the coffin that contains his grandfather’s remains. When James continues to look doubtful, he adds, “He was a miserable, rotten old bastard anyway. There’s really no need to feel bad for him.”

“Can we just get on with it?”

“In a minute,” Sirius tells him, pulling his sleeve up to reveal the pale stretch of arm underneath. “Diffindo.”

James winces slightly as the severing spell slices Sirius’ skin open, carving a neat slash across his arm. “What are you doing that for?”

“The coffin is sealed with magic,” Sirius says matter-of-factly, holding his arm out over the coffin and letting the blood drip down towards it in glistening crimson pearls. “Only someone with Black blood can open it.”

As he speaks, the droplets appear to sink into and become absorbed by the wood, and this is shortly followed by a quiet clicking noise, like a lock being snapped open.

“If only he’d had the sense to make sure that nobody the family disowned could open it either.”

The lid of the coffin pops off and slides elegantly to the side. Within it, what’s left of his grandfather is nothing but a decayed, degraded skeleton, adorned in frayed, insect-bitten velvet robes and the burnished opulent jewellery he’d been buried with.

“What exactly is it that we’re looking for?” James asks warily, looking inside.

“This,” Sirius says, spotting the bejewelled stone dish lying by the corpse’s feet, with a shimmery silver substance floating around inside it. “Accio Pensieve.”

The dish obediently floats up and out of the coffin, landing silently next to Sirius. James gapes at it, open-mouthed. “A bowl? That’s what we desecrated his grave for?”

“Not any bowl,” Sirius says calmly. “A Pensieve.”

“And what the fuck is a Pensieve?”

Sirius uses his wand to toss larger bits of the stony rubble back onto the grave, carelessly, without bothering to shut the coffin. When it’s finished, his grandfather’s final resting place looks like a lazy, slipshod pyramid constructed out of mounds of fragmented rocks.  

“A Pensieve,” he says then, looking back at James and dusting off the layer of ash that’s settled over him, “is an object that’s used to store memories, replay them, revisit them and such. They’re fairly rare and difficult to find, but luckily old Arcturus here happened to have one, being the aristocratic snob that he was. Asked to be buried with it, taking whatever shameful secrets he was hiding in there to the grave with him.”

James arches his brows impatiently. “And what could we possibly need a dead old man’s memories for?”

“Not his,” Sirius uses his foot to tip the Pensieve over, so that the pearly silver memories of his grandfather spill out and disappear into the earth, hissing slightly. “We’re going to use it to look at mine.”

--

Back in their flat, with the Pensieve set comfortably atop the dining table like a crown, Sirius takes what may possibly be his last look at James before this lavish little daydream he’s allowed himself to bask in for so long shatters into jagged, irreparable pieces.  

It’s a wonder to him, how he has every single one of James’ features memorised so scrupulously, and in so much detail – but finds himself caught off-guard and breath-taken every time he looks at him anyway, like even the most perfectly constructed image that he has embedded of James in his memory is nothing compared to the real, astonishing thing.

“I love you,” he says, unnecessarily, because love seems like such a poor, insubstantial way to describe the true force of how he really feels about James. Adore, maybe. Worship, more like. “I think that will become fairly obvious when you see the things that I’m about to show you, but I just wanted for you to hear it from me first, before everything.”

James lets out a strained laugh. “I don’t know how to feel now that we’re finally doing this. You’re making me nervous.”

“Imagine how I feel,” Sirius says, and the mild, tender smile that he gets from James in return sweeps all over his insides, temporarily dismantling the surfeit of anxiety accumulating around his heart.  

“It’s not too late to change your mind, you know, if you want to.”

“What, after we broke into a cemetery and destroyed my grandfather’s grave?” Sirius arches an eyebrow. “In Windsor?

James snorts. “That’s a good point, actually.”

“I think,” Sirius exhales slowly, taking advantage of the lapse in tension to be honest for a moment, “that I need to show it to you, whether you want to see it or not.”

James’ eyes flick dubiously to the Pensieve sitting between them.

“And it may or may not change the way you feel about me, but it’s – it’s necessary.”

“Okay,” James nods solemnly, unquestioningly. The look on his face is clear as day: if it’s important to you, it’s important to me. It makes Sirius’ heart beat so loud that he almost flinches with the cognisance of just how painfully, startlingly much he needs James, how much he’s always needed him.

“You’ll be wading through the memories that I show you, sort of like a ghost that no one can see or hear. Nothing you say or do while we’re in there will have any effect on the events or people that you see, except for me. Me me, not memory-me. Does that make sense?”

“A little.”

“James,” Sirius says, hesitating for a sharp flicker of a moment. “What we’re doing, it’s – I’m letting you into my head, you do get that, don’t you?”

The words lying carefully concealed underneath that he can’t quite bring himself to say are: this is as much of me as I’ll ever be able to give you and please don’t use it to ruin me.

“Of course,” James is looking at him intently, like it goes without even saying.

He nods. “Okay. We can start with a simple memory, maybe the first time we met.”

“In first year?” James frowns. “Weren’t you going to show me what happened the night we stopped talking?”

“The first memory is just for you to get the feel of being in one – we can look at the important memories in question after that.”

“There’s more than one?”

“Showing you that night on its own wouldn’t be enough. There were things leading up to it, and things that followed after, that you need to see too.”

James blinks at him, confused.

“I just think that it’s a good idea for you to understand that we – that when I did what I did, it wasn’t to hurt you,” Sirius says, his tongue growing heavier with each word. “That’s what you believed, two years ago. It was the reason – one of the reasons – why you cut me out so completely.”

Frustration washes into every crevice in his body at the acrid reminder of it. James had actually been convinced that Sirius’ intention had been to hurt him that night. Sirius understands why he’d been angry when it happened, of course, furious when he found out – it had been an irrational, cruel thing for Sirius to do and it was wrong, he knows that now, he really does, but James flipping the whole thing on its head and accusing Sirius of having done it of spite, or jealousy, or any of the other farfetched, ridiculous theories he’d come up with – that was the last thing Sirius saw coming, because James should have known better than to think that Sirius could want to hurt him. The thought that he’d done it out of anything but love shouldn’t ever even have crossed James’ fucking mind. Delirious, sickening, obsessive love, yes, but love all the same – and the fact that James failed to see that feels every bit as drastically wrong now as it did two years ago.

“What did you do?” James asks him.

Sirius looks away, the barbed words that he wants to say catching in his throat before he can get them out.

“I suppose that’s what you’re going to show me,” James’ voice approaches low and gentle, like he can already sense the electromagnetic waves of discomfort crawling under Sirius’ skin. “Isn’t it?”

“It’s one of the things, yeah.”

“Alright, well, we’ve come this far,” James offers him a soft, encouraging smile. “The suspense is killing me – now I really want to see what eleven-year-old Sirius looked like.”

Despite himself, Sirius feels the corners of his mouth inflecting slightly. James has always been good at this, at being Sirius’ personal anodyne, able to detect and defuse any crackling, spitting sparks of tension inside him and turn them insipid. Always knowing just where to touch him to make all the strain go away. “I wasn’t nearly as handsome back then, I’m afraid.”

James laughs, a starburst of loud, musical sound that reverberates all around them. “You can’t even say that with a straight face, you liar. Go on, then, show me how it works.”

Sirius concentrates on the memory that he wants to share with James and uses his wand to extract it out of his head like he’s unravelling a string of yarn. It’s a strange feeling, having a memory materialize from inside his mind into a real, tangible thing – almost like bleeding, except that it’s painless and there’s no wound. When he casts it into the basin, it catches the light, opalescent and shimmering before him.

“How am I meant to watch your memory?”

“You sort of just lean into it, I think, and –“

James is gone before Sirius can even finish the sentence, obviously, so he bends forward into the Pensieve to follow him. As he does, the living room around him disintegrates into swirling, nacreous particles; he’s caught in a whirlwind of colour and prismatic light that sweeps everywhere, almost blinding him, refracting against itself, so mesmeric and rapid that he hardly even keeps track as the billions and billions of particles rearrange themselves into the scene of their first encounter.

--

(They’re on a train, jolting over the pebbled tracks, the remnants of the steam whistle still vibrating through the air like a tremolo.

“Hogwarts Express?” James says, looking at Sirius, and Sirius nods. “It’s nice to finally know what it looked like. Where’s little Padfoot?”

“Coming this way,” Sirius turns his head to face the door between the carriages, and James looks too.)

In the memory, Sirius is eleven, and so excited he can barely stay still in his seat. Less than five minutes after the train has left King’s Cross, he’s already abandoned his compartment in favour of jogging round the train, peeking curiously around into the other carriages like a little thief. He’s scaling a good proportion of the entire train, examining every passing nook with great interest, carrying out mental assessments of the other students he passes, and occasionally glancing into hidden-away spaces for that silent, elusive ghost that Bellatrix had sworn she’d encountered on the train once. 

“Someone might think you’re up to something, you know,” a loud voice says, catching Sirius about twenty minutes into this in-depth ghost hunt.

(“Is that really what I looked like at eleven?” James says, laughing. “How did I ever make a good first impression on you?”

“You didn’t,” Sirius lies.)

Sirius turns around, seeing a short boy in glasses with wild black hair that’s growing out in every possible direction. It’s the sort of messy, improper haircut that Sirius’ mother would hate, and Sirius decides that he likes this boy, whoever he is. “Why would anyone think that?”

“Because you look like you’re spying,” the boy has a bright, matter-of-fact way of speaking, like every word rolling off his tongue is backed up with indisputable fact. “What are you looking for, anyway?”

“My cousin told me she saw a ghost on this train. I wanted to see if she was lying.”

“Bet she was,” the boy says. “No one I know has ever mentioned a ghost on the Hogwarts Express before.”

“That’s what I thought,” Sirius admits, a little reluctantly, “but I didn’t want to look stupid if I was wrong.”

“Well, I think you’d look even stupider trying to hunt down a ghost that doesn’t exist, don’t you?” the boy says. “Are you sure you’re not getting mixed up with the ghosts in the castle?”

“I think I can tell the difference between a castle and a train, thanks,” Sirius huffs, now annoyed. “Anyway, why were you spying on me?”

(“Ah, there’s the pair that we know and love,” James is smiling. The tips of his fingers knock gently against Sirius’, and even here inside the Pensieve it makes Sirius feel like he’s glowing.)

“I wasn’t spying, I just noticed you lurking about and chose to investigate.”

“And you followed me, which makes it…” Sirius pretends to have to think really hard about this for a moment, “spying, if my calculations are correct.”

(“How were you so much funnier as a first-year than you are now?”

“Shut up, James.”)

If I was spying,” the boy insists, chest puffing outwards indignantly, “it’s only because you were spying on a ghost first.”

“You mean the ghost that you just said doesn’t exist?”

“You didn’t know that. But me spying on you spying on the ghost means that it gets cancelled out. It’s just maths.”

Sirius takes a moment to wrap his head around this, then says, quite seriously, “You must be terrible at maths.”

The boy laughs at that, and it echoes in electrifying waves all across the carriage. “You’re right, I am. This is stupid, anyway. Do you want to play Exploding Snap instead?”

Sirius glances around for any last sign that a phantom might be hiding somewhere in the carriage, then shrugs and agrees to follow the boy into a nearby compartment, where there are two other first-years chuckling to each other and unwrapping sweets inside.

“Look, boys, I’ve found us a friend,” the boy announces, and Sirius can’t help but notice the way that the two others straighten up to look at him almost immediately.

“Hi,” they say in unison, regarding him for a short moment before returning to their candy.

The boy swivels around, quite suddenly, to face Sirius, and their noses nearly collide from the abrupt movement. “What did you say your name was again?”

For a split, startled second Sirius considers saying anything but his own stupid name, but no clever alternative floats to mind. “It’s Sirius.”

The black-haired boy grins at him, stepping back. “I do hope you’re joking, Sirius.”

“No, I’m being serious,” he says, and it makes the boy laugh again, a loud and effervescent noise that makes Sirius feel unnecessarily pleased with his stupid (and extremely overused) joke.

“I’m James,” the boy tells him, climbing onto one of the seats and reaching for a Pumpkin Pasty. “James Potter. And this is Remus, and Peter.”

Sirius nods at the other boys politely, but his attention gravitates back towards James immediately after. James. It’s such a straightforward, no-nonsense type of name. Short and simple. Not like Sirius, after a stupid pointless star in the night sky that isn’t even part of any constellation.

“What house are you hoping to get put in?” James asks him, his limbs stretching out, columbine, over the length of the seat that he’s flopped onto. “It’s not Slytherin, is it?”

“What makes you think that?” Sirius frowns at him reproachfully, shame flaring up like a rash over his skin and making it itch.

James’ gaze glides over him, head to toe, taking him in thoughtfully. “Don’t get me wrong, you just look… the sort.”

“Well, I’m not,” Sirius’ face flushes with indignance, and he stamps his foot down loudly. “Not like the rest of my family, anyway. They were all in Slytherin.”

“Why don’t you want to be in the same house as the rest of your family?” James peers at him curiously, leaning forward.

“Because I’m not like them,” Sirius says, lower lip jutting out in defiance. “I’m better.”

James tilts his head and considers him, not saying anything for a moment. Then he splits the Pasty that he’s holding in his hands into half, and reaches out to offer a piece to Sirius. “You know what, you’re okay, Sirius,” he tells him, smiling, and Sirius lets out a breath of relief. “And I’ve got a funny feeling that you and I are going to be friends.”

(“What’s happening?” James says, startled, as the scene before them starts dissolving away piece by piece.

“The memory’s over.”)

--

They’re back in the apartment, as if they hadn’t moved an inch. And maybe they haven’t, Sirius muses. He’s not entirely sure how Pensieves work – but then again, no one is; it’s a part of their rare, unique magic to be so mysterious and inexplicable.

“Why couldn’t we have stayed a little longer?” James pouts a little. “I was really enjoying that.”

“Good, because you’re not going to like these next few bits as much,” Sirius tells him, unspooling a series of diaphanous memories from his temple and casting them into the bejewelled bowl as James watches. “We’re going to skip several years ahead, and do the next few memories in succession so that we won’t have to keep jumping out of the Pensieve with each one.”

“Sounds good.”

“If there’s anything you want to see that might answer any questions you have, just tell me – we can do those ones after.”

It occurs to Sirius, now that they’ve begun going down this harrowed, terrifying road, that his mind is nowhere near as paralyzed with fright as he thought it would be. Instead, he feels quite detached and methodical at the moment, as if none of this is actually happening, and he’s just here as an observer in somebody else’s bizarre dream. He knows what’s about to come, of course he does, but the choked-up anticipation of it has made everything feel surreal, weaving shadows of phantasmagoria through the cold, hard reality of having to finally show James.    

“You hanging in there?” James asks him quietly, his eyes keen and attentive.

The ephemeral brush of his fingers landing on Sirius’ arm pulls him out of his thoughts, rooting him back into himself. “Yeah. You?”

“Yep. Ready to do this?”

He sighs with resignation, and begins leaning forward over the Pensieve. “Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”

Chapter Text

(Morning light, honey soft, dappling over the white, crumpled bedsheets. Silver cigarette smoke swimming in serpentine swirls and weaving through the air around them, catching constellations of dust in its stream.)

Sirius is fifteen and really has better things to be doing than sitting here and counting the seconds that slide by one by one, waiting for James to return to the dormitory they share with Remus and Peter at Hogwarts. A sleepless night, coupled with the irritation of having to do this, has put him on edge, and by the time James finally comes bursting back into the room with his cheeks flushed and eyes bright, Sirius feels quite ready to throttle him.

He doesn’t, though, because every violent impulse that fires up from his nerve-endings at the sight of him boils away as suddenly as it appears, startled off by the way the maple light dances across James’ skin, whirling and glazing around the peripheries of his body in ribbons. James pauses in surprise when he sees Sirius sitting there, but a moment later a big, pleased smile brightens his entire face.

“What’re you still doing here?” James asks, all familiar and affectionate, and Sirius’ pathetic heart barely has time to force out a single, stuttering beat before James is beside him, so close that the warmth and scent of his skin is unavoidable, demanding all of Sirius’ attention at once. “I thought you’d have gone for breakfast by now.”

Sirius doesn’t say anything, all the anger he’d been meaning to unleash just moments ago suddenly tasting hollow in his mouth.

“Well, aren’t you going to ask me how it went?” James probes, his ankle bouncing lightly against Sirius’ leg as he speaks. “Aren’t you curious?”

“No, I’m not fucking curious,” Sirius snaps at him.

“Pads,” James frowns, the smile on his face dissolving away slowly. “Hey, is something wrong?”

Sirius busies himself with lighting a cigarette and shakes his head, not trusting himself to speak without saying something stupid.

“Don’t be like that,” James says, his fingers deftly catching Sirius’ wrist and plucking the cigarette out of his hand. “Are you really going to be upset that I went on one date with Lily?”

“I’m not.”

Pads,” James says again, in that lilting, pleading voice that makes Sirius want to hit him for somehow making himself out to be the victim here. “We didn’t even kiss, you know, she wouldn’t let me. There’s nothing for you to be jealous about.”

Anger hisses through Sirius, and he yanks his wrist out of James’ grasp, making the other boy blink at him in surprise. “I’m not jealous, you fucking snake, and don’t touch me – I’ll break your arm.”

James scowls slightly. “What is it, then, if you’re not upset that I went out with her?”

It makes Sirius bristle, the casual, harmless way he says it – I went out with her – like the very thought of it doesn’t sicken Sirius, doesn’t feel like a hard, cruel punch crushing all the air out of his windpipe.

“Hey,” James noses the side of Sirius’ neck, persistent, the breath coming out in whispers by his throat. “Talk to me. What’s the matter?”

Sirius closes his eyes, refusing to give in to the subtle physical distraction because he bloody well knows what James is trying to do, but finding it impossible to resist him anyway. His body betrays him, paralysing into place, rendering him unable to defend himself.

“You’re lucky I’m in the mood to entertain your tantrums today, you know,” James murmurs, his lips moving upwards towards the tender space of skin behind his ear, and Sirius actually whimpers – he feels so fucking irritatingly helpless with James, having all his autonomy so quickly and easily stolen away from him without the slightest bit of effort. “Now tell me what’s wrong.”

James,” Sirius breathes, the name sounding broken, desperate, as James’ mouth traces methodically over his neck.

“What?” James grazes Sirius’ earlobe with his teeth, with just enough pressure to direct a sharp shiver down Sirius’ body, surging out into every vein. “Do you want me to stop?”

“I’m serious –“

“You’re too easy to read, you know, that’s your problem,” James tells him. “Sitting up all night and waiting here to find out if I kissed Lily or not – it’s actually sort of cute in an unhealthy, possessive way, if I think about it –“

That finally does it. It requires every last molecule of strength in his body, but Sirius manages to extricate himself from James forcefully, pushing the other boy off him with hands that don’t even feel like his own. “Don’t do that,” he spits out, disgusted by his own weakness. “Don’t just – come in here and kiss me and act like everything’s the same after you spent all fucking night with –“

“There it is,” James laughs lightly, and for one maddening moment Sirius thinks he might actually, truly just kill him right there and then. “So you are jealous.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

“I don’t understand what you’re making such a big deal about. I told we didn’t do anything, and even if we did, it wouldn’t matter because you’re not replaceable, Sirius, do you need me to spell it out for you? A million dates with Lily won’t change what you are to me – you’re mine.”

“And you?” Sirius asks him coldly. “Whose are you?”

James opens his mouth, offended. “That’s not – the fact that you even have to ask that –“

“You know what? Don’t bother,” Sirius tells him, squashing the cigarette out into a porcelain ashtray and pushing it aside. “I think I already know.”

--

(The memory they’ve shifted into is in the Prefect’s bathroom, hours after midnight, where the only illumination comes from shafts of soft moonlight falling in sideways from the domed windows.)

“This is,” James decides, examining himself in the mirror with a mixture of wonder and bewilderment on his face, “the weirdest sex thing we’ve ever done.”

“What about the time we did it in our Animagus forms?”

“No, you’re right – that was definitely weirder.”

“And while you were wearing your Invisibility Cloak?”

“Alright, third weirdest,” James concedes, turning around to face Sirius and nearly jumping out of his skin at the sight of him. “My God, look at you. I don’t think I can go through with this.”

“Taking Polyjuice Potion and changing into each other was your idea,” Sirius points out, though he has to admit that the fact that seeing James in his own body has soared right past the ballpark of sexy and is currently somewhere around the realm of really fucking disturbing. “You were the one who was so fucking enthralled by the idea of having sex with yourself.”

James moves closer, so that moonlight casts a ghostly glow over him and Sirius can get a better look. Obviously, Sirius has some idea of what he looks like, but to see himself from this perspective is still unnerving. For starters, he’d had no idea that his hair’s been getting so long, or that the shadows under his eyes are this pronounced. But while looking at James being him is definitely bordering on unbearable, he has to admit that he’s not entirely in disagreement about transforming himself into James. To be so intimately slipped into the beautiful skin he’s always been so fixated by – to have James’ hands be his own, to touch his torso and feel James’ muscles tensing beneath his fingers, to look down and see James’ cock under his robes –

“Have you got a hard-on?” James asks in disbelief, staring at him incredulously.

“Um.”

“You absolute deviant,” James grins “Take your clothes off.”

“Only because I’d like to get a better look at myself like this,” Sirius says, as his robes land with a soft swishing sound onto the marble ground. In the mirror, James’ naked, sun-browned body looks back at him, every fucking bit as resplendent as Sirius has ever known it to be. It makes heat prickle under his veins.

James is looking over him with a sort of critical interest, like an artist contemplating his own painting. “I did think my quads were a bit bigger than that,” he muses after a moment. “You should’ve told me.”

“I think you were right, you know – this is actually sort of doing something for me,” he tells James, still regarding his own reflection and battling a sudden urge to start jerking himself off. “Take the robes off, you’ll see.”

James undresses too, and Sirius only wastes a short, disinterested moment glancing over at the sight of James in his body before returning to the far more absorbing sight of himself in James’.

“I see what you mean,” James says thoughtfully, his eyes traveling down himself, his fingers sliding over the pale hardness of his cock experimentally. “Sort of defeats the point if we’re still just getting turned on by each other, though, doesn’t it?”

“Not really,” Sirius shrugs, “I’d quite happily stand here in front of the mirror and watch myself have a wank. It’s fucking hot being you.”

James laughs at that and takes two steps forward to shut the space between them, and okay, it’s definitely strange being kissed by his own lips, because the texture and shape of them are wrong, but the manner of kissing is all James’ own – the way his mouth collides onto Sirius’ like an asteroid, the hungry, bruising pressure of it, the shuddering gasp of his breath against Sirius’ skin.

“Oh, fuck –“

James tugs back abruptly, then, as if stunned by his own movement, stands there panting for a few moments and staring at Sirius with wide, stricken eyes, like he’s fucking upset.

“What, was it really that bad kissing yourself?”

“No – it’s not that,” James blinks at him, after an awkward pause suggesting he took an extra second to entirely process the question. “I just – I wish we weren’t leaving tomorrow, Pads. This year went by so fucking fast.”

Sirius glances down at the top of James’ head as James leans forward again to rest his forehead on his shoulder with a defeated sigh. “I know. Me too.”

“I hate not being able to see you all summer.”

“I know.”

“And it infuriates me,” James tells him roughly, head whipping back up to glare at Sirius with a righteous, helpless sort of anger blazing bright against his irises. “You going back to those people for three whole months – after how they’ve treated you – and me not being able to do a fucking thing about it, just sitting around and worrying about you –“

“James, really, it’s fine – I’m used to it. I’ve dealt with them my whole life, remember?”

“Well, I haven’t. There has to be something we can do – “

“Look, are you really going to ruin our last night together by talking about my family? This was supposed to be sexy.”

“Don’t go home,” James suggests suddenly, his fingers clutching and tangling into the hair at the back of Sirius’ neck.

“Don’t be stupid,” Sirius says, starting to get irritated now. “I have to.”

“No, you don’t,” James yanks on his hair, eliciting a sharp, sibilant noise out of Sirius as pain flares into his scalp.

“I do, because I quite fancy the idea of having a roof over my head, James, as shitty a roof as it may be.”

“Come live at mine.”

Sirius lets out an annoyed breath. He’s not at all in the mood for James to so insistently come up with these ridiculous ideas when they’re standing here naked on their last night at the school before summer.

“Look, think about it,” James is saying, his voice rising a pitch, the strange grey eyes flaring with a certain, intoxicating heat that Sirius has never seen in his own before. “You already come over every Christmas anyway, and my parents love you. And you’ve got all your things packed up – well, the things that matter – all you’d have to do is come with me tomorrow once we’ve gotten off the train.”

“Right, but – but what you’re suggesting is for me to move in with you, permanently.”

“Do you not want to?” James asks, his voice taking on accusatory edge that fills Sirius with annoyance.

“Of course I fucking want to,” he snaps, “it’s not about what I fucking want, James, it’s about what’s reasonable.”

“What’s unreasonable about moving in with me?”

“Well, you haven’t even asked your parents, for fucking starters, and what about Regulus? And who’s going to pay for my school stuff, because you can count on my mother cutting off any financial support the instant she realizes I’ve left with you. And –“

“Pads, listen to me – please,” James cuts him off, his voice fracturing like shattered glass, raining down around them and slamming Sirius’ protests into silence. “I can’t stand the thought of you going back there again, okay?”

Sirius looks at him, aware of the way his pulse is accelerating to keep up with the dangerously swelling heart in his chest. “Look, you don’t have to worry about me. I can take care of myself.”

“What, by getting beaten and locked up in your room like some – some animal in a cage?”

“It’s honestly fine – “

“It’s not fine for me!” James shouts at him. “I hate it, I’ve always hated it –  I just want you to leave, I don’t care about any of the rest of it, we’ll figure it out, we’ll take you in and pay for your school shit and do anything that you fucking ask, but just – just – ”

Okay,” Sirius breathes, startled and completely thrown off by the urgent, pleading look on James’ face, the way he sounds like he’s going to fucking cry or something. “Shit, don’t – Merlin, don’t get all weepy on me, alright, I’ll come with you – I’ll come, for fuck’s sake, stop it, you baby.“

“I love you, you fucking wank,“ James swallows and takes a deep breath in, his eyes furious and wet. “I really, really fucking love you, alright, can’t you –“

Sirius is kissing him before he can finish the rest of his warbled sentence, and James relaxes immediately into his mouth like a soft sigh, his lashes still damp against the crest of Sirius’ cheekbone, both his hands reaching up to encase the sides of his face, holding him, fervent and desperate, like there’s no Lily, like they’re the last two people in the entire fucking world, and like nothing else could matter more.

--

(The memory that flits before them next is drowsy with the soporific haze of summer, with arabesque white clouds twining against a wavering wheat sky. The air is steeped in the heavy, sweet scent of honeysuckle. Butterflies drift lazily over the lawn, and from the house nearby comes the faint sound of a woman singing.

“Where’s this?”

Sirius takes a moment to respond, because his chest is still heaving with everything that had lodged itself inside him during the previous memory, after the first time James had ever said he loved him – followed the knowledge of how quickly all of it would crack open with fissures and swallow them whole. He hadn’t realized that he’d be able to feel everything so clearly in these memories, as if all the emotions that he’s spent years trying to bury have only just been brimming under the surface this whole time, waiting to emerge. “Your parent’s place, after I ran away from home.”)

Sirius is laying on the grass, watching James play with a gleaming golden Snitch. The winged ball flutters around them, slipping in and out of sight for several moments at a time, until James’ quick, precise hand darts out to clasp around it easily.

“Lily asked about you in her letter,” he says absently, when he releases the ball again. “She wanted to know if you settled in okay and everything.”

“You’re still writing to her?”

“Of course I’m still writing to her. We’re only on a break for the summer.”

Sirius shades his eyes with his hand and squints up at James. “Maybe in your next letter you should tell her how you spent the whole summer fucking your best friend. I’m sure she’d love to know all about that.”

James smiles, but it looks slightly pained. “Do you have to be like that? We talked about this.”

“Yeah, well.”

James rolls himself over so that he’s laying down next to Sirius, not touching him but still close enough to coax goosebumps from his flesh. “Isn’t it enough just to be like this?”

“Like what?”                                                                                                          

“Like this,” James does touch him this time, his fingertips sliding softly, secretively, over Sirius’ collarbone. “You don’t have to make it feel so messy and complicated all the time, you know.”

“Oh – well, thank goodness, for a moment there I was almost under the impression that it was messy and complicated.”

“Stop it,” James frowns at him, indignant lines burrowing around the corners of his mouth the way they always do when he’s annoyed. “I told you, it’s different with you, and –“

“If you spout that bullshit about how it’s not a competition one more fucking time –“

“It’s not,” James sits up suddenly, staring at him with a weary, exasperated look on his face. “Look – I find it impossible to believe that you can’t wrap your head around this. What I have with Lily is nothing like what I have with you, there’s no point trying to compare the two. Lily completes me –”

“Oh, here we go again.”

“Listen,” James snaps at him. “You never fucking listen to me. Lily completes me but you’re – you’re part of me, like one of my organs. I adore you, you know I do, but I can’t be with you because it would be like dating myself. And even I’m not as conceited as that.”

“That’s your excuse? I’m part of you, so I have to sit around and watch while you’re going out with her? Because she counts as a different person but I don’t, because I’m just one of your organs?”

“Well, yes,” James says, looking at him quizzically. “Is that really so difficult for you to grasp?”

Sirius scoffs and hoists himself up, snatching away the Snitch before James can reach for it. “Merlin. You are so full of fucking shit.”

--

(The memory morphs again, and this time they’re in Hogsmeade, which is a flurry of sound and colour in its usual weekend crowd. In one corner a clearly intoxicated wizard is arguing defiantly with the portrait hanging askew on the wall, and past the windows snow is hammering down noiselessly into the white-blanketed ground.)

Sirius and James are crammed round a small table with Lily, Remus and Peter. Empty pint glasses lay stacked between them, and the conversation has grown lively with drink, spattered with raucous laughter and Lily’s pink-faced giggles each time James makes a particularly crude joke.

James is sitting in the middle of Sirius and Lily, telling everyone how much his mother has loved having Sirius living with them over the summer, and confiding with great distress that he thinks a part of it is just because he’s so good-looking. “You should see him, too,” James laments, as Remus and Peter snort and splutter over their drinks, “always walking around without his shirt on like some kind of poster boy for abs – offering to help her out in the garden or to fix things, always flexing his muscles when she looks at him. It’s horrifying. God – the way my mother swoons over him as well, ‘oh, that Sirius, he’s such a good boy, so handsome, so helpful.’”

“It’s not my fault you’re such a useless son,” Sirius tells him, polishing off his drink. “Euphemia just likes that I actually help out around the house, instead of admiring my own reflection all the time.”

Euphemia,” James repeats, as the other boys and even Lily collapse into laughter again. “She’s Mrs Potter to you, and don’t you bloody forget it.”

“Say, Sirius,” Lily says, leaning forward so that she can catch Sirius’ eye across James. “Why haven’t you got a girlfriend?”

Sirius raises his eyebrows at her, stopping himself from asking how that’s any of her business at the very last second.

“It’s not like you haven’t got options,” she tells him. “If you could only hear how the girls talk about you in our dorms – I think half the bloody school fancies you at this point.”

“Why wouldn’t they?” James puts in, knocking Sirius’ shoulder lightly with his own. “Look at him.”

“Dorcas Meadowes keeps asking me to ask James to put in a good word about her to you,” Lily smiles, nodding towards a beautiful, tall girl with almond eyes and cocoa-saturated skin sitting in the corner of the pub, who’s been sneaking coy glances over at Sirius from the moment they walked in. “She thinks, and I quote, that you’re the epitome of male beauty.”

“She’s very pretty,” Peter sighs helpfully, looking over at Dorcas. “Very, very pretty.”

“If you’d just ask her out,” Lily continues, “it might get her to stop talking about how in love with you she is every once in a while. It gets terribly boring, you know, no offense – but I think I’ve listened to her describe your glorious Greek god body in far more detail than I ever felt comfortable with.”

“Well, that settles it,” James nods at him decisively, patting Sirius on the back. “Go on, ask her out – you’d be doing Lily a favour.”

“You really would,” Lily agrees.

Sirius fiddles with the empty glass, nausea suddenly spiking through him. “No, I think I’m alright, thanks.”

“But she’s so pretty,” Peter says again, sounding personally offended by the refusal.

“I know she is.”

“What’s the problem, then?” James demands.

“There isn’t a problem.”

“Well, she’s sitting right there, isn’t she, just go over and –“

“I’m not interested.”

“How the bloody hell can you not be interested in that?”

“Leave it, James,” Remus says sharply, throwing James a warning look. “Don’t push him.”

Avoiding James’ searching, disapproving gaze, Sirius gets up from the table, nearly knocking over a pint glass in his sudden, suffocating hurry to get away from there. “I’m going out for a smoke.”

James makes to get up too, but Remus beats him to it first and follows Sirius out of the pub into the silent, snowing night. Christmas lights twinkle prettily on the exterior walls of the establishment, feeling strangely discordant to the roiling, choking discomfort inside Sirius’ stomach.

“You didn’t have to come after me,” he tells Remus gruffly, after a moment of silence following his lighting of a cigarette. “I really do just want to smoke.”

“I know,” Remus shrugs. “I just thought it’d be nicer for you to have some company while you do.”

Sirius nods in response. “Thanks – for what you did back there, I mean.”

“James wasn’t doing it on purpose, you know,” Remus slips his hands into his pockets to keep them warm. “I think he just wants you to date someone else so you don’t feel so upset about him and Lily all the time.”

“You don’t need to make excuses for him.”

“I’m not making excuses.“

“I just don’t –“ Sirius stops and sucks in a sharp, angry breath. “I don’t understand how he can be with her after all those things he says about loving me and wanting me –“

“You know how he is,” Remus purses his lips, and Sirius feels himself soften slightly with approval at their mutual displeasure regarding James’ inflated sense of entitlement. “He’s convinced he can have anything he wants, even if those things are in conflict with each other.”

Sirius forces out a rough laugh at the stupid, pathetic irony of it. “And to think that all I want is –“

“I know,” Remus says, his voice soft and sad and of absolutely no comfort at all. “I know.”

(“Sirius?”

Sirius looks up, distracted, to see James watching him with a strange, misty look in his eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” is all he gets time to say, and then the memory changes once more.)

--

(Mid-summer again, the night warm and wine-coloured, with a glossy motley of stars burning right through the fabric of the sky.)

James is sitting with his knees propped up on the alcove, his back against Sirius’ chest, the half-smoked joint in his hand like a neon cherry in the dark. “Do you sometimes think about what it would’ve been like if we never knew each other?” he asks. “If we’d never been friends – or if one of us never existed?”

“I don’t know,” Sirius says, rubbing his tired eyes and stretching his legs a little to give James more space to nestle between them. The weed has suffused his blood with a sleepy, mellow warmth, and his thoughts are currently being distracted by the weight of James’ body against him, the friction of his bare arm rubbing along Sirius’ each time he takes a drag. “Why, do you?”

“Well, yeah – it’s just human nature, isn’t it?”

“Pass the joint, you selfish dick, you’ve had it for ages – how’s it human nature?”

James hands him the joint and exhales a mouthful of smoke, watching it rise out the window and seep into the maroon sky. “It’s human nature to ruin our possession of good things by wondering how long they’ll last.”

“Not too sure I follow, Shakespeare.”

“Well, look. When people have something they really love – or someone they really love – all they can think about is how to protect it, right? They become frightened of losing it, so much that it consumes them, and they start dreaming up all kinds of scenarios where they don’t have that thing anymore, or never had it in the first place.”

Sirius ashes the joint and takes a drag. “Yeah, I guess.”

“It’s the inevitable consequence of loving things to wonder what the world would be like without them.”

Sirius snorts out a laugh and ends up choking on the smoke, but quickly stifles it back down when James turns around to glower at him irritatedly. “What?” he cracks a smile at the ruffled look on his face. “Don’t pout at me like that. How stoned are you?”

“You think I’m chatting shit.”

“No.”

“You do – I can tell you do.”

“No,” Sirius says again. “It’s just – where’s all this coming from? You were literally sitting there and staring at the sky in silence for ten minutes, and now all of a sudden you’re going on about human nature and the inevitable consequences of love –“

James faces the other way again, but not before Sirius catches the slight, sullen flare of his nostrils. “We can talk about something else if you’re not in the mood.”

Sirius presses the joint back into James’ hand, leaning forward to touch his lips softly, in apology, against the back of his neck. “No, I want to talk about this,” he says, breathing in the sea-salt smell of James’ hair. “I’m sorry – go on.”

“I just sometimes think about what it would’ve been like if I never met you – or worse, if I’d met you and then lost you. I don’t think I’d be able to be myself in either scenario.”

“Right, well, we’re not in either of those scenarios. So you’re free to be as much of yourself as you please.”

James takes a deep, frustrated breath, turning back again so that his cheek bumps against the bridge of Sirius’ nose. “How can you know that?”

“Because there’s this neat little thing called time, and it generally only goes forward, and considering that we’ve already met and nobody’s planning on going back six whole years just to prevent that from ever happening –“

“Not that scenario, obviously, the other one.”

“What, the scenario where you lose me?” Sirius asks, kissing the jumping pulse on James’ neck and feeling it quicken under his lips. “I think that’s even less likely than someone deciding to go back six years just to stop us meeting each other.”

“I don’t,” James says quietly.

Sirius looks up at him, at the beads of starlight reflected against his eyes. “How come?”

“I just think – I don’t know,” James lets out a slow exhale. “I worry about you changing your mind sometimes. About me.”

The idea of it is so outrageous Sirius can’t even bring himself to dignify it with a proper laugh, so he just retrieves the joint from James again instead. “Stop smoking this, I think it’s starting to make you stupid.”

“Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“I don’t. Are you listening to yourself?”

“Sirius, stop it,” James says forcefully. “I’m not fucking around.”

“Neither am I.”

“You hate that I’m with Lily.”

“Yeah, so what?”

“So what?” James repeats. “So – what if one day you decide you’ve had enough of me being with her and you just – I mean, she’s important to me, but I know you don’t get that, so sometimes I feel like –“

“Shut up,” Sirius says. “So what if you’re with Lily? It’s shit, yeah, but I wouldn’t change my mind about you because of that.”

He has to admit, though, that the thought has occurred to him very briefly on occasion these last two years, that maybe it might be healthier for everyone involved if he just takes a step out of this fucking triangle or whatever it is that he’s somehow got himself into with James and Lily. But the idea of it is not just stupid, it’s inconceivable – because as much as his pride is wounded by the fact that James genuinely likes her, as angry and jealous that makes him, both of those painful things are only minor compared to what it would feel like if Sirius were to not have James at all. Both overridden by the simple fact that Sirius doesn’t believe it even possible for himself to exist without James.

“Look, it’s not like – like I don’t get to do things with you,” he says, after a moment, struggling to find the right words. “It’s not like I don’t still get to be with you, I just get it a little less often – and okay, it was fucking inconvenient at first, it still is when I think about it, but I don’t know. I’m used to it, I suppose, as unfortunate as that sounds. I’m certainly not going to leave you because of it.”

“But what if –“ James closes his eyes, frown lines appearing in his forehead. “What if you don’t feel like that forever?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“I don’t know,” James shakes his head. “I just see how miserable you look when I’m with her.”

“Well, obviously,” Sirius says. “That’s sort of unavoidable. But you’re an idiot if you think that’s going to make me change how I feel about you.”

James sighs and leans back again, his fingers intertwining around Sirius’ hand and bringing it to his mouth for a kiss. His lips are soft and gentle against Sirius’ skin. “I love you, Pads. Sometimes I’m scared of just how much.”

“I know,” he says, and thinks, most of the time, anyway.

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